Sheppard, William Henry, (8 or 28 Mar. 1865–25 Nov. 1927), missionary, explorer, and human rights advocate

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Citation:

Niven, Steven J.. "Sheppard, William Henry." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0521 (accessed Tue Jan 27 12:56:24 EST 2015).

 

Sheppard, William Henry (8 or 28 Mar. 1865–25 Nov. 1927), missionary, explorer, and human rights advocate, was born in Waynesboro, Virginia, the son of William H. Sheppard, a barbershop owner, and Sarah Francis “Fannie” Martin, a bath maid at a local spa, who had been born free. Because of his mother's free status, William, born just weeks before the end of the Civil War, was never classified as a slave, but his father may have been. Compared with most blacks in postbellum Virginia, the Sheppards lived in relative comfort, though William began full-time employment at eleven, first as a stable boy and then as a waiter. In 1881 Sheppard enrolled at the night school run by Booker T. Washington at Hampton Institute, Virginia, and financed his education by working on the institute's farm and in its bakery. He also helped found a mission school for poor blacks nearby and wrote in his autobiography, “I felt from that afternoon that my future work was to carry the gospel to the poor, destitute, and forgotten people” (Kennedy, 11).

To achieve that goal, Sheppard studied for the ministry at Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (now Stillman College) in Alabama in the mid-1880s and was assigned by the southern Presbyterian Church to congregations in Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia. Disliking his urban pastorates, he lobbied the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board for two years to send him to Africa, but the board refused to do so until 1890, when it recruited a white Alabamian minister, Samuel Lapsley, to join him in founding a mission to the Congo. Leaving his fiancée, Lucy Gantt, behind, Sheppard sailed with Lapsley from New York to London in February 1890. Before leaving for the Congo, Lapsley met with and received assistance for the mission from King Leopold II of Belgium, a man recognized by his fellow European monarchs as “Protector of the Congo.” In truth, Leopold's governance of the Congo more closely resembled a protection racket, benefiting the Europeans who invested in his rubber plantations, mines, and railroads, but at a tragic cost to millions of native Congolese, driven out of their homes and beaten, tortured, and enslaved in brutal labor camps.

Sheppard and Lapsley were, however, unaware of the ongoing genocide when their ship anchored at Sharks Point on the Congo River delta in May 1890. The two men then embarked on an arduous twelve-hundred-mile journey through territory rarely traversed by outsiders, braving storms, treacherous, crocodile-filled rivers, and exposure to malaria and other diseases. Sheppard proved adept at navigating the unknown terrain and establishing an easy rapport with locals, which was greatly enhanced when he shot two hippopotami to save a village of Bateke people who were near starvation. The Bateke repaid their debt to the man they called Mundele Ndom, “the black white man,” by rescuing him from attack by a crocodile. Booker T. Washington would have been proud of Sheppard's entrepreneurial skills—and frugality—as he cajoled, haggled, and bartered in several villages to find the porters and supplies needed for the final stage of the missionaries' journey, first by canoe and then by steamship, through the perilous Kasai River basin.

On 18 April 1891 Sheppard and Lapsley finally arrived at Luebo in the Kasai District, where they established the American Presbyterian Congo Mission among the Kete, a moderately prosperous farming people. After the dangers of the previous year, Sheppard marveled at the beauty of the Upper Kasai's palm tree–filled landscape and gloried at the clear night skies that “shine nowhere so brightly and beautifully as in ‘Darkest Africa’” (Kennedy, 64). Even though the men established a small farm and built several huts and rudimentary roads, they failed in their primary task of converting the Kete to Christianity.

When Lapsley died from blackwater fever in 1892, Sheppard assumed sole charge at Luebo and immediately planned a new mission, this time to the Kuba people, who lived in uncharted lands deep within the Kasai interior. After mastering the Kuba language and navigating the byzantine pathways of the Kasai outback, he arrived at a village on the edge of the Kuba kingdom, only to be apprehended by a prince, N'toinzide, who threatened to put the entire village on trial for entertaining a foreigner. Sheppard expected to be put to death, but he was instead brought to N'toinzide's father, King Kot aMweeky, who declared the missionary to be the spiritual reincarnation of Bope Mekabe, an ancient king of the Kuba. Sheppard remained at the king's palace for several months, observing the orderly, prosperous, and technologically advanced culture of the Kuba and collecting fine pottery, intricate tapestries, and ceremonial wood carvings, among other artifacts, that he would later donate to the Hampton Institute. Although Sheppard found much to admire in Kuba society, he deplored the practice of poisoning suspected witches and the ritual killing of enemy captives in funeral sacrifices. Hoping eventually to discourage such traditions, he persuaded Kot aMweeky to grant him nine acres of land upon which to build a mission. On receiving that grant, Sheppard left for London in 1893, where his exploits among the Kuba had earned him comparisons to the famed Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone and membership in the Royal Geographic Society.

Traveling back to America, Sheppard married Lucy Gantt in Jacksonville, Florida, in February 1894 and returned with her to the Congo three months later. There she had three daughters, Miriam and Lucille, who died as infants, and Wilhelmina, who survived the malarial Congo for five months before being taken home to Virginia to be raised by an aunt. In 1901 Lucy Gantt Sheppard had a son, William Lapsley Maxamalinge, shortened to Max, who was named after her husband's first partner at Luebo and a Kuba prince. Sheppard also had a relationship with a Kuba woman, who bore him a son, Shepete, in 1900.

From 1894 to 1896 Sheppard's mission at Luebo was staffed entirely by African Americans, until the Presbyterian leadership in America insisted on assigning a white missionary, William Morrison, to oversee them. Morrison shared Sheppard's goal of establishing a mission among the Kuba but was even more concerned about exposing the mounting evidence of atrocities perpetrated by the Belgian colonial regime. In 1899 Morrison dispatched Sheppard to report on an alleged massacre of Kuba villagers by native Zappo-Zap forces armed with European weaponry. Posing as a Belgian official, Sheppard took photographs of piles of dead bodies and dying people and persuaded the Zappo-Zap leader to admit that they had killed more than eighty villagers for refusing to pay their Belgian overlords a “tax” of rubber, food, and slaves. In addition to the charred, dismembered bodies—a scene reminiscent of a southern lynching—Sheppard made the grisly discovery of a pile of eighty-one right hands. Even though the Belgian courts assigned blame to the Zappo-Zaps alone, Sheppard's report provoked a flurry of international protests against the Congo regime and prompted Mark Twain to publish a damning satire of Belgian colonialism, “King Leopold's Soliloquy.”

In the main, however, Sheppard was less vocal than Morrison or Twain in condemning Belgian atrocities, at least as long as he remained in the Congo and needed the colonial regime's support for a planned new mission. That accommodationist stance did not, however, prevent the Belgian state rubber company from attempting to sue him in 1908 for slander; Sheppard had published an article criticizing the company's forced labor practices and their destruction of Kuba traditions and culture. The Belgian authorities ultimately dismissed the charges, but the trial helped focus global attention on atrocities in the Congo and made Sheppard one of the first internationally recognized human rights advocates.

Sheppard's moment of fame was short-lived, however. He returned to the United States in 1910, after the Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board expelled him for several counts of adultery, charges that he admitted. Not wishing to tarnish the reputation of a bona fide hero—or the reputation of the church itself—the Missions Board kept the charges secret but placed Sheppard on probation, forcing the minister and his family to scrape together a living in Staunton, Virginia. In 1912 the church relented and hired Sheppard as a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, where he died after a stroke in 1927. Although he lived his final years in relative obscurity, more than a thousand people attended his funeral, a testament to Sheppard's enduring appeal.

At the turn of the twentieth century, no other black missionary enjoyed a greater international reputation than William Sheppard. Sheppard's condemnation of Belgian atrocities and his public lectures on the treasures of the Kuba also provided a necessary antidote to prevailing Victorian notions that contrasted civilized Europe with the uncultured savagery of “darkest Africa.”

Further Reading

There are two main collections of Sheppard materials and manuscripts: the Presbyterian Historical Society, Montreat, North Carolina, and the Hampton University Archives, Hampton, Virginia.
  • Sheppard, William H. Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo (1917)
  • Kennedy, Pagan. Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (2002)

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