Every year, Outdoor Afro Volunteer Leaders from across the country come together to embark on incredible journeys where they engage in fellowship, explore connections to Black history, and celebrate Black joy in nature. In previous years, leaders have organized summits of Mt. Whitney and Mt. Kilimanjaro, Blackpacking through national forests, statewide campouts, ski trips, and more!
In September 2021, fifteen of those leaders from across the nation joined each other in Hermann, MO to paddle over 100 miles down the Missouri and into the Mississippi River. Fifth-year St. Louis, MO network Leader and Expedition River Captain Anthony Beasley recounted his experiences of celebrating Black Joy down by the riverside.
“Chaya Harris, the Outdoor Afro National Program Director, saw that I had participated in the Stream Teams United Paddle MO fundraiser and how much I enjoyed it. Considering the substantial Black history of the river, this would be a great opportunity to celebrate and commemorate folks like York, Mary Meachum, and enslaved peoples who used this path on the Underground Railroad.”
The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are teeming with Black history: from the initial American survey to its role in the Underground Railroad to how these trade routes helped Black Meccas thrive, these rivers carry our stories.
Defeated by General Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, Napoleon pivoted away from his goal of re-establishing a French colonial empire in North America to focus on the impending war with the United Kingdom in 1800. Within this space was an opportunity for then, President Thomas Jefferson to double the size of the fledgling United States of America and push out competing French and Spanish interests. In 1803, Congress ratified the Louisiana Purchase, and the next year President Jefferson tasked Meriweather Lewis and William Clark with surveying the newly acquired territory.
“Initially, I was hesitant,” says Beasley about the paddle. “I had only participated in the Stream Teams trip; I didn’t organize the event. It was just a 25-mile float. We didn’t camp every night along the river. We were shuttled back and forth to our boats at the end of the day.”
This expedition was going to be a little different. Leaders were going to set up camp at the end of each day on the river and travel four times as far. “I didn’t think I could lead a group 100 miles down the Missouri, but I knew that my Outdoor Afro community had my back. Chaya helped me scout the area, research Black History on the Missouri, and make a plan for a successful paddle.”
William Clark felt similar trepidation but would need to build his own support. In preparing for the survey, he assembled a “Corps of Volunteers for the Northwest Discovery” and forced an enslaved man, York, to serve in it.
“As an enslaved man, York was considered less than human, so not much was recorded about him other than what they [Lewis and Clark] thought to write in their journals,” says Beasley. “He was the only unpaid [initial] member of the expedition but was pivotal to its success.”
As an enslaved man, York was treated poorly by members of the Corps, who would pick fights with and use him to scout ahead the most dangerous areas. Most of the Indigenous people and immigrants they encountered had never seen a person with Black skin. As they traveled up the Missouri, word spread about the expedition and the “extraordinary” York. The Nez Perce had designs to kill the Corps, but upon seeing York backed off from fear of his retaliation. Because the expedition needed to trade and barter with different tribes along the River, York was presented to them as a novelty and to gain trust.
At over 2,300 miles, the Missouri River is the longest river in North America and is 300 feet across at its widest. This would be Beasley’s first time being on a major river that size. “I’ve been on a few float trips but on smaller rivers. I had never been on a major river like that before, and, I’ll be honest with you, I was terrified.” Thankfully, Anthony had the love and support his team to help him overcome any reservations. For leaders, Outdoor Afro is where they create bonds, build leadership, and find family. “This was my first time paddling with 15 Black folks. When we were out there, just to look back and see all that brown on the river, it was breathtaking.”
Only recently has York been able to receive the recognition he’s deserved as an integral part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The journey was treacherous and not at all rewarding. Despite him being one of the keystones to the western expansion of the United States, York returned to Washington, DC in 1806 and remained Clark’s slave, ultimately being sold out to a farm in Louisville, KY and becoming lost to history.
Anthony and the BlackPaddle crew used their time on the river to celebrate and give honor to people like York, Mary Meachum, and more who carved out spaces where we can feel free in Nature.
“I think about York traveling the opposite way on this river on the journey out west. It just gives me a sense of ownership on this river. I belong here.”
We’ve been here and will always be here, celebrating Black Joy and Black Leadership in Nature.