William Henry Sheppard (1865–1927), dubbed the "Black Livingstone" after the famed Scottish explorer of Central Africa, was among the first African-American missionaries sent to Africa. He gained national and international fame after he exposed the violent practices of Belgian rubber companies as they manipulated the political relationships among Congolese tribes in order to profit from slave labor.
William Henry Sheppard was born on March 8, 1865, in Waynesboro, Virginia, in the state's southwestern corner. Although Waynesboro was still part of the Confederacy (Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox coming just over a month later), Sheppard was never a slave; his mother was a free woman of mixed-race background. His father was a barber and also the sexton at a predominantly white Presbyterian church. As a child he enjoyed playing with a detailed toy model of Noah's Ark. The town, with its comparatively small black population, had somewhat more harmonious race relations after the Civil War than did parts of Virginia with large slave plantations, and Sheppard was enrolled at the town's new "colored" school. He later recalled, according to William E. Phipps in William Sheppard: Congo's African American Livingstone , that a white woman once told him, "'William, I pray for you, and hope some day you may go to Africa as a missionary.' I had never heard of Africa, and those words made a lasting impression."
In his early teens Sheppard worked as a servant for a S. H. Henkel, a Presbyterian dentist in Staunton, Virginia, cleaning horse stables and improving his reading skills by picking up books discarded by the Henkel family. In 1880 he enrolled at the Hampton Institute, the pioneering institute of black higher education in Hampton, Virginia; among his teachers there was Booker T. Washington. He was fascinated by the "Curiosity Room," an anthropological collection maintained by the school's white founder, General Samuel Armstrong. Graduating from Hampton in 1883, Sheppard moved on to the historically black Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (now Stillman College), a Presbyterian institution in Alabama. Finishing his studies there in 1886, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister two years later. In Tuscaloosa the nearly penniless Sheppard met Lucy Gantt, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and the two became engaged.
Sheppard assumed the pastorate at Zion Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, but immediately found himself restless and made several applications to be sent to Africa as a missionary. The request was controversial within the white Presbyterian hierarchy. Some argued that blacks might function with special effectiveness as missionaries in African countries, but the Presbyterian Church's foreign missions committee refused to send Sheppard to Africa without white supervision. Sheppard got his chance in 1890 after a young white minister, Samuel Lapsley, volunteered to go to the Congo to set up Presbyterian missions there, and to take on Sheppard as his partner.
There was little supervision involved. "The arc of the relationship between Lapsley and Sheppard fascinated me," Sheppard biographer Pagan Kennedy told National Geographic . "It started out almost as servant and master, but very quickly when they got to Africa the tables turned because Sheppard was so much more capable." Arriving on Africa's Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Congo River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the two made their way inland to the lands of the Kuba (now often known as Bakuba) people and, in 1891, founded a mission at a village called Luebo. Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad was traveling up the Congo River at the same time, and he and Lapsley later met in the town of Kinshasa.
Sheppard's adventures began with a close call crossing the Congo in an African-style canoe. "Being ignorant of its great drawing power … we were drawn in as a floating stick," he wrote, according to Phipps. "We spun round and round like a top, the boat all the time at an angle of about forty degrees, till we were dizzy…. We thought of our watery graves and all of our past life flashed before us." Africans asked them whether they were rubber traders, but Sheppard and Lapsley said that they were there to teach about God. "They laughed and thought that was a strange business," Sheppard wrote. The pair's first night in their new home was a frightening one, as Africans from a nearby village showed up to gawk, armed with bows, arrows, and spears, "but we put on our broadest and best smiles…. Mr. Lapsley on his couch was sobbing audibly and so was I." The driver ants of central Africa caused Sheppard grief. "There were millions," he wrote. "They were in my head, my eyes, my nose, and pulling at my toes. When I found it was not a dream, I didn't tarry long…. In an incredible short space of time they can kill any goat, chicken, duck, hog, or dog on the place." In the eyes of the Africans he met, Sheppard had an ambiguous position: he was black but a stranger. They called him "black white man" or "black man with clothes."
Soon, however, Sheppard relaxed and became a keen observer of the culture into which he had transplanted himself. He recorded his observations of Kuba crops, textiles, and music. He wrote long descriptions of the ancestor worship of the Kuba without judging the people according to Christian standards, although he was disturbed by trials in which a villager showing insufficient grief at a funeral might be accused of witchcraft and forced to drink a poisonous liquid. He began to hunt, and was photographed at one point with a giant snake he had killed, surrounded by a crowd of admiring Africans. Killing a hippopotamus with his rifle in order to feed a group of starving villagers, Sheppard later shot other hippos and dried their meat so that he could make trades and keep the mission well provisioned. He adapted to life in Africa better than Lapsley, who died of a fever in 1892.
Sheppard also learned to speak the Kuba language, and this helped him discover parts of the Congo region that no American or European had ever visited. Traveling crosscountry and offering to buy eggs in each village he came to, he would then be given a local guide who would show him the way to the next village market so that he could buy more. According to John G. Turner in his article "A 'Black-White' Missionary on the Imperial Stage," Sheppard recalled, "For three months we did nothing but buy and eat eggs." He preached the gospel at each stop. Finally he neared the village of the king, Luckenga, who had threatened to kill anyone who helped Western strangers find his capital city. Sheppard's fluency in the language, however, persuaded the king's retinue that he was a reincarnation of one of the king's deceased relatives. Sheppard also discovered a nearby lake.
In 1893 Sheppard left Africa temporarily. He traveled to London, where he met Queen Victoria and was inducted into England's Royal Geographic Society. Back in the United States he found himself in demand as a lecturer, and experienced some financial success. He married Lucy Gantt and the two started a family that eventually included two offspring, Wilhelmina and Max, who survived childhood. Sheppard and his wife returned to Africa in 1894, expanding the Luebo mission and starting a second settlement, with American-style street names, in a place called Ibaanc (or Ibanj). Two children succumbed to childhood diseases, and in 1898 Lucy took their third baby, a daughter, back to the United States.
In 1899 Sheppard encountered new challenges. Belgium's King Leopold II, the Congo's colonial ruler, had faced international criticism for his exploitation of the region's peoples and natural resources, all of it carried out under a banner of claimed humanitarianism. The colonial government of the Congo Free State used Africans as slaves to harvest rubber and build railroads, setting one African tribe against another in order to find traders with whom they could deal in the traffic of human lives. The Presbyterian church in the United States, which took a role in opposing these activities, dispatched a new white missionary, William Morrison, to replace Lapsley and bring the story of Belgian plunder to the world.
At first reluctant to bring controversy to his mission and to confront white Europeans, Sheppard showed great courage when he applied his familiarity with Africa to the task at hand. The Belgians' African allies came from a tribe called the Zappo-Zaps, whom they had armed with rifles and given the task of punishing uncooperative peoples. These included the Kuba, and Sheppard was dismayed to find some of the villages he had visited seven or eight years before reduced to destitution. Sheppard located a village where Zappo-Zap warriors had demanded payment in rubber, slaves, and food from a group of Kuba, a ransom the Kuba could not produce. They were slaughtered and left to rot in a courtyard in the steaming tropical air.
Sheppard made an exact count of severed hands in the courtyard, noting 81 of them in a report that was later presented to colonial authorities, initially with little result. Back in the United States once more, Sheppard began to publicize his findings and wrote an article about them for a Presbyterian magazine. His allegations gained international attention, and by the later part of the twentieth century's first decade, Sheppard had become well known around the United States and Europe as a human rights activist. In 1908 he and Morrison were sued for libel by Belgium's state-controlled rubber company and were put on trial in the colonial capital of Leopoldville. Publicity surrounding the trial, which was heavily covered in American newspapers, only exposed other corrupt practices in the Belgian Congo, and the charges were dropped.
In 1910 Sheppard returned to the United States for good, and not entirely by choice. In closed-door meetings with Presbyterian Church officials he confirmed rumors that he had committed adultery with African women, beginning after his wife's return to the United States in 1898. He had three additional adulterous affairs between 1896 and 1910, and at least one of them produced an illegitimate son, named Shepete. The allegations were kept quiet by church officials, for Sheppard's name was still an important part of their long-term campaign to reduce the sufferings of the native population in Belgian-controlled Africa. Sheppard was allowed to resign his mission posts quietly.
Sheppard and his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where Sheppard spent the rest of his life as pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church during the most virulent years of racial segregation in the American South. He still gave lectures, but had to depart before eating when talking in hotels to white groups, and he had to read in a Louisville newspaper article (quoted by Turner) of the writer's surprise that "a little pickaninny" had become a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Felled by a stroke in 1926, Sheppard died on November 25, 1927, in Louisville. Large interracial memorial services were held in both Louisville and Waynesboro, and a park and housing project in Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood were named after him.
Kennedy, Pagan, Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo , Viking, 2002.
Phipps, William E., Congo's African American Livingstone , Geneva, 2002.
New York Times , January 8, 2002.
North Star , Fall 2002.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch , February 6, 2002.
"'Black Livingstone' Blazed Trail in Dark Congo of 1800s," National Geographic News , http://www.news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/02/0228_0301_livingstone.html (January 27, 2007).
"A 'Black-White' Missionary on the Imperial Stage: William H. Sheppard and Middle-Class Black Manhood," Journal of Southern Religion , http://www.jrs.fsu.edu/volume9/Turner.htm (January 27, 2007).
"Jewel in the Kingdom: William Sheppard," Urbana.org, http://www.urbana.org/_articles.cfm?RecordId=252 (January 27, 2007).