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Race and Ethnicity

New, Mysterious Portland Monument Honors York, An Early Explorer Of Oregon

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Robin Kamerling walks Mt. Tabor regularly and loves the new memorial. "I'm very impressed and deeply moved," she says.

There’s a new monument in Portland’s Mount Tabor Park.

It’s a bust of York, the only Black member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, and it appeared mysteriously.

Sometime last week, someone installed the sculpture atop the pedestal that used to house a memorial to Harvey Scott, the former editor of The Oregonian and an outspoken conservative who, among other causes, fought women’s suffrage. Scott’s monument was toppled during last year’s racial justice reckoning.

“I think it’s great that somebody did this,” said Mark King, who was at the park Monday helping clean up damage from last week’s ice storm. “How did they get that up here anonymously without anybody knowing? The gates are locked, what did they do?”

While the statue looks as if it is cast in bronze, it’s hard to tell precisely what materials were used.

A tap of the plinth reveals that it’s painted wood and there’s an inscription:

York

The first African American to cross North America and reach the Pacific Coast.

Born into slavery in the 1770′s to the family of William Clark, York became a member of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition. Though York was an enslaved laborer, he performed all the duties of a full member of the expedition. He was a skilled hunter, negotiated trade with Native American communities and tended to the sick. Upon his return east with the Corps of Discovery, York asked for his freedom. Clark refused his request.

The date and circumstances of his death are unclear.

Robin Kamerling walks Mount Tabor regularly and loves the new statue. “I’m very impressed and deeply moved,” she said.

Some passersby OPB spoke with Monday noted with concern that the bust was put up without the usual public input process. Kamerling isn’t worried about that.

“I feel like people who are trying to have their voices heard have tried through the democratic process and legal ways, and there keeps being a knee on their neck,” she said.

Portland Parks & Recreation officials say that if the monument is safe, it will remain in place at least for the time being.

“The bureau has a memorial policy that says if a tribute is placed in a park and isn’t a danger to the public, PP&R will let it temporarily remain in place,” parks Director Adena Long.

In a statement, Commissioner Carmen Rubio said diverse communities have directly shaped the economy, civic leadership and culture, and thus deserve long-overdue recognition.

“The art piece depicting York, the first Black explorer to cross North America, should make all of us reflect on the invisibility and contributions of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other Oregonians of color — especially artists,” said Rubio, who oversees the parks department. “These individuals have made immeasurable contributions to the City of Portland, and we must change how we, as a city, recognize our histories moving forward.

“PP&R Director Adena Long and I, together with the team at Portland Parks & Recreation, are committed to keeping this installment in place for the foreseeable future, as well as additional parks collaborations with BIPOC artists, and taking steps to ensure our city policies regarding monuments, recognitions, and parks-affiliated names reflect our commitment to a fuller, more racially inclusive history of contributions to Portland.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting