His voice thundered with the pride of casting his vote.
It grew hoarse as he recounted being ordered to forget his wife "like she was a stray dog I found on the side of the road." And it rang with the shame of being a slave.
Hasan Davis, playing Capt. William Clark's slave York, said during the expedition, he was part of a "band of brothers" and a respected and valued member of the team. And he was allowed to give his vote on where the Corps of Discovery would winter over.
Davis, a Kentucky youth advocate and motivational speaker, performed as part of the "Ocian in View" speaker series Friday along with Amy Mossett, a Mandan/Hidatsa tribal member who spoke about Sacagawea's contribution to the women's rights campaign. Both spoke twice during the weekend.
Davis said afterward that his performance was particularly relevant after Hurricane Katrina, when people realized that many black people still live in marginal conditions.
"So many people grow up not believing that they have a right to dream big or make demands," he said. "A lot of what we're told as women or people of color is that 'People like you have never done anything so great.' ... We've been identified as perpetual welfare recipients."
So when Davis tells a story that includes the line "I have seen a world few white men might have ever dreamed of," he said he reminds other black people that they too can accomplish great things, and they too have a right to dream.
"Capt. Clark says, 'It took every man,'" York stated. "'The way I see it, means every man earned the right to say where we go from here."
But not long after, as York tells it, the company was gathered around the fire, and the leaders told them how they would be presented to the president as patriots and heroes. Each man's name was called, and the company cheered for each. "My name," York said haltingly, "it wasn't on that list, you see."
He decided it was the white men's way of reminding him that when he went back to civilization, he had to walk three steps behind, avoid eye contact and speak only when given permission.
York considered staying with the Indians, but he had his wife to think of. And he wanted to tell people that there were places where black people were honored and respected.
York was viewed as a gift from God by many of the Indians, who had never seen or heard of a black man. His great strength awed them, and he spoke with pride about being invited into their homes and sitting down to eat their food.
"Master Clark" agreed that York was a gift from God, then told the Indians to respect the white man even more for saving and taming this creature. He told the Indians they were now Americans and had to obey the president. "I wish I could have made myself so ferocious I could have scared them all away, or at least warned them," York said hoarsely. Without knowing the right languages, he couldn't tell them anything.
When the company returned, they went to Washington, D.C. Every man received double pay, land and personal thanks from President Thomas Jefferson for making his dream come true. York got nothing. And when Clark wanted to move to St. Louis, York had to go along, despite his wife. "I order you to be done with that wife," York said in a trembling voice. "I thought he knew what it was for a man to give his heart away."
York begged for his freedom. According to him, Clark responded, "You much too valuable a piece of property for a man to let go of like that."
York was beaten, imprisoned and made into a field slave because he could not learn to look down and keep his mouth shut again.
Ten years after the conclusion of the expedition, he was finally freed. But his wife's master had moved and he could not find her. York decided to go back to some of the Indians he had met on the journey
Davis told the audience a team of trappers reported a black chief of a band of Crow Indians who spoke of traveling with Lewis and Clark. Davis believes that even though York could not find his wife again, he found a place he could be respected.
"Although I was born into chains," York finished, "I have never been the property of another man!" He received a standing ovation and thunderous applause.
'A person of courage'Mossett followed. She spoke on Sacagawea's behalf.
While Mossett said she felt the decision had been made before the vote, she called Sacagawea a person of courage, leadership and adventure, and said she and York "absolutely participated in the vote."
Mossett said Sacagawea is the most celebrated woman in American history and has been used to represent the rights of women. She pointed out Sacagawea's vote was more than 100 years before the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote in 1920 and Native Americans were permitted to become citizens and vote in 1924.
While black men were officially allowed to vote much sooner, Mossett reminded the audience of racist attacks, intimidations, lynchings, poll taxes, literacy tests and a requirement of references from registered voters that effectively disenfranchised many black people. She said the current Voting Rights Act is set to expire in 2007, and that groups are pressuring President Bush to extend it. Also, Native American voters are still fighting for an honest vote, Mossett said, citing a 2005 court ruling that South Dakota's restructuring of voting districts violated the Voting Rights Act.
David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society, which sponsored the event along with the Washington Department of Transportation, said Clark was fond of Sacagawea and trusted her. He said journals from other members of the Corps indicate there were votes at several important decision-making times.
"The belief that people can govern themselves is the radical contribution of the United States to the broad pattern of world history," Nicandri said.