SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center introduced a fresh “face” to its collection of animatronic storytellers recently.
The new exhibit, “York Comes to Life,” portrays a slave of Capt. William Clark, who along with Meriwether Lewis, led the cross-country journey that first passed through what today is Sioux City in 1804.
York, the first person of color to be represented in animatronic form at the interpretive center, joins five other talking figures: President Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the exploration of territories acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only Corps of Discovery member to die during the journey, Seaman, a Newfoundland dog who was the only animal to complete the entire three-year trip, and Lewis and Clark.
Tracy Bennett, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, described the addition of York as a “long time coming.”
“He needs to be considered just as important a member of the expedition as everybody else,” Bennett told the Sioux City Journal. “He really helped the communication from Lewis & Clark with the Native Americans because they found him so fascinating, and they couldn’t believe this big, tall, Black man in the Native American culture. They believed there was something important to the color of your skin, and the darker your skin was the more... ability you had to communicate with higher powers.”
Bennett said the York figure also adds to the center’s story of Floyd’s last days.
“York was very essential in nursing Sgt. Floyd when he was dying,” Bennett said. “We thought he would be a great addition to the story here.”
A grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa and Missouri River Historical Development in the last year gave the center enough funds to complete the York exhibit. The rough cost of the project was $60,000.
It has been almost 10 years since the center introduced a new animatronic. Planning for the York exhibit began five years ago. Throughout the process, local leaders and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were consulted to ensure that the exhibit accurately and respectfully represented York’s story and appearance.
“We wanted to run it through our community that it would be done correctly, and be something that would honor York,” Bennett said. “Obviously he was a slave, and was not necessarily treated justly after the journey, he did not receive his freedom right away, and when he did it was a long time coming. And so, we wanted to be tender with his story as we put the animatronic together.”
In terms of the physical setting, facilities manager Joe Hlas used materials from the surrounding area to recreate what the Corps of Discovery Expedition may have encountered.
“I just sprinkled sand that I sifted from outside,” he said. “All this sand came right from the river. It’s possible that some of this sand, York might have stood on. The inclusion of the gun with York’s animatronic is of special importance. Guns were rarely given to slaves, but York had earned the group’s trust enough to carry one.”
The voice over for the York animatronic was done by West High School graduate Antoine Smith, who is currently on Broadway in “MJ: The Musical,” starring as Motown records founder Berry Gordy.
Bennett says Smith was “very glad” to be able to perform the voice lines for York’s animatronic.