By Nicole Hennessy
“I have a story to tell. Want to hear it?”
Following these opening lines written and performed by actor and historical scholar Marvin Jefferson, the story of York was presented on June 27 at Lakewood Park as part of the 2013 Ohio Chautauqua.
Blurring the distinction between himself and the relatively unknown slave of a famous master, Jefferson continued as York, body servant to William Clark of Lewis and Clark.
Having removed his gold wedding band and dressed in period clothing not typical of slaves, he sat on stage in an imagined tavern, where York told his stories following the great expedition west.
“When I dress this way,” he continued, “it reminds me of a glorious time, a time of bravery – especially mine; a time of hardship, danger, bitter winters, raging storms, buffalo as far as the eye can see; sickness, intense fear, death-defying courage and most of all, for me, a time of freedom.”
“I am York,” he added. “I was Capt. William Clark’s slave.”
Born in Caroline County, Va., in 1772 to two slaves, York was commanded to became Clark’s body servant at the age of 14, before which the two were permitted to play together, forming a relationship “mutated through the twisted prism of slavery,” Jefferson explained during a Lakewood Public Library lecture he gave previous to his performance.
Well-spoken and groomed for slavery by his father, Old York, body servant to Clark’s father, York fell into his role naturally, performing his responsibilities well, eventually joining Clark on the expedition.
“This is a very uncomfortable subject, slavery,” Jefferson told the crowd gathered in the library. “The remnants of it still surround us today and, interestingly enough, York’s story is symbolically emblematic of that remnant that continues to haunt us.”
Absent from popular American history, as Jefferson pointed out many African-Americans seem to be, York’s story was one Jefferson pieced together over the course of years of research.
Detailing the brutality of slavery in his lecture, he read passages written by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish poet, who published his first-hand experiences.
“We entered some negro’s huts, for the habitation cannot be called housing,” Jefferson began reading, continuing to describe sick children sprawled out on the floor, yearly clothing allowances and scarce sources of food, finally adding that this, in fact, was Niemcewicz’s depiction of George Washington’s slaves.
He also read a passage written by Thomas Jefferson, in which the case was made for the superiority of the white race, which helped shape the national justification for slavery by detailing blacks’ genetic makeup, dispositions and physical appearance in a way that justified a “dehumanizing process” through cultural, spiritual, religious and scientific means.
With a newfound purpose and freedom on the expedition, York learned to shoot a rifle and was given other liberties not usually granted to slaves as a means of survival, including acting as a doctor and confidant, tracker, negotiator and ambassador, as dark skin color is revered in many Indian tribes.
“Big Medicine!” York exclaimed on stage. “Whenever we encountered Indians, that’s what they called me…Many Indians had not seen a man of my color before. When they saw me, they saw a great warrior, a leader, the bravest, the most courageous of them all.”
In 1806, when the expedition ended, all its members, including York initially, were hailed for their bravery – all members, besides him, awarded land and money.
Clark allowed York to relay his triumphs to locals in tavern like the one imagined by Jefferson, adding to the illusion that he was somehow more free. This, though, did not last long, as Clark later had him beaten, sold to a cruel master, jailed and separated permanently from his wife. Then, finally, he was freed and given a business.
Though well-spoken from having grown up on the Clark plantation, York was illiterate, since it was illegal to teach slaves to read or write, and was often cheated, causing him to lose his business.
There are two accounts of how York spent the rest of his life: one written by Clark, which detailed the loss of his business due to an inability to get up early, keep his horses alive or protect himself from being cheated, the only detail that’s likely true.
“The hero of the Missouri expedition,” Clark wrote, “ended up crying, ‘Damn this freedom; I have never had a happy day since I got it.’”
In another version, told by a traveler named Zenas Leonard, York made his way back to the Crow Indians, living amongst them for the rest of his life.
After his performance, Jefferson stood on stage speaking to audience members who thanked him for sharing York’s story.
He said of open discussions of slavery, “The world is changing; America is changing right before our eyes, and it’s time to talk about it.”