Los Angeles Times
Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congoby Pagan Kennedy
A largely untold story of an extraordinary historical figure, this biography sheds light on the life of William Sheppard, a 19th-century African American who, for more than 20 years, defied segregation and operated a missionary run by black Americans in the Belgian Congo. This work shows how Sheppard returned to the United States periodically, and traveled the… See more details below
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A largely untold story of an extraordinary historical figure, this biography sheds light on the life of William Sheppard, a 19th-century African American who, for more than 20 years, defied segregation and operated a missionary run by black Americans in the Belgian Congo. This work shows how Sheppard returned to the United States periodically, and traveled the country telling tales of his adventures to packed auditoriums. An anthropologist, photographer, big-game hunter, and art collector, the man billed as the “Black Livingstone” helped expose the atrocities that occurred under the reign of King Leopold, and this stirring work tells how he eventually helped to break Belgium’s hold on the Congo.
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A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth Century Congo
By Pagan Kennedy
Santa Fe Writers ProjectCopyright © 2013 Pagan Kennedy
All rights reserved.
"When I Grow Up I Shall Go There"
In February 1890, on a New York pier, Sam Lapsley said his last good-byes to his parents. Then the wan young man with a dusting of blond hair climbed the gangway of the steamship Adriatic. "I felt as I never had in my life, when I saw you walk out of sight in the great shed," the twenty-three-year-old missionary wrote to his parents only hours after the vessel set sail. "I thought I saw you again on the Battery and waved, and ran, and tried to see better, but lost you. I didn't know how much I loved you till today."
Lapsley's partner — another missionary, twenty-four years old — stood beside him at the rail of the ship, and the two watched the New York skyline recede into the distance. William Sheppard's coat appeared cheap and tattered next to his partner's; nonetheless, he was the more striking man — tall, with magnificent shoulders and a ready laugh. As the Adriatic pulled away Lapsley's mother cried out, "Sheppard, take care of Sam." Almost thirty years later, Sheppard would remember her entreaty, and he would imagine what Laps1ey's parents must have suffered after the steamship disappeared in the distance: "Judge Lapsley and his wife returned to their home in Alabama — that home had changed. There was a vacant chair and a voice that was not heard."
In typical Victorian fashion, both Sheppard and Lapsley recorded little of what happened on that day besides the parting between Sam and his parents, milking the scene for all the sentimental frisson it would have held for readers of the period.
Neither man remarked on what fascinates the modern observer: Lapsley was white; Sheppard, black. During one of the most cruelly racist periods in American history, when Jim Crow laws segregated everything from hotels to factory floors, the two men planned to travel through Africa as equal partners. Though it would have been illegal for them to ride together through some parts of the United States in the same train car, in the Congo they would sleep in the same tent, trade clothing, and nurse each other through fevers. The Southern Presbyterian Church, itself segregated into white and "colored" denominations, would pay each man the same salary. Whether they knew it or not, Sheppard and Lapsley would not only explore unmapped regions of the Congo, but also pioneer a new kind of relationship between the races.
That the men were traveling together at all was a miracle. A significant faction in the Presbyterian Church had opposed the hiring of a black missionary, arguing that blacks were morally unfit to live among "savages" and too slow to learn new languages. Even those kindly disposed to Sheppard did not expect much from him: Church leaders assumed it would be Lapsley who would oversee the American Presbyterian mission in the Congo, that it would be Lapsley who would perhaps achieve international fame. They were wrong.
William Henry Sheppard was born in Virginia near the end of the Civil War — March 8, 1865 — a time and place in which black people might dare to be hopeful. One historian has called the period between 1867 and 1877 the "improbable years," when educated blacks became mayors, judges, and professors; schools were integrated; and some states recognized interracial marriages. What was the magic ingredient that allowed blacks to advance so quickly during that decade? Northern soldiers. In the decade after the Civil War, the federal government maintained a military presence in the territory it had defeated, intent on keeping the South from rising again. The North stripped former Confederates of their power and broke up old political machines. This allowed a coalition of educated blacks and progressive whites to enter state governments and re-imagine what the South should and could be.
In Virginia during that miraculous decade, blacks had so much clout that even the Conservative Party could not hope to win elections without their votes. That is why, one summer day in 1869, the Conservatives sponsored a lavish barbecue for Richmond's elite blacks on a small island near the city. The picnic on Kitchen Island, with cicadas buzzing and the smell of cornbread on the grill, hardly ranks as one of the important historical events of Reconstruction; in fact, it is just one of the many forgettable moments of the era. And yet what happened that day tells us much about race relations at the end of the 1860s, about the swoop of hope and its quick collapse into tragedy.
That afternoon a crowd of three hundred — roughly half white and half black — gathered for the party. The island could only be reached by walking over a suspension bridge, and the lucky few with tickets presented them to a policeman and strolled across. Everyone else had to wait, swarming against a fence, for they were near enough to Kitchen Island to see what looked like an open bar, to smell the sizzling meats on the grill, and to hear the strains of a dance band that was just tuning up. They could see a banner unfurling between the tall trees; it showed a black man and a white man shaking hands, and it read, "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." The integrated crowd pressed closer together, straining toward that island of peace and plenty.
When the policeman finally opened the gate, sixty or so people swarmed onto the bridge at once. The wooden beams and steel chains swayed under their weight. Across the way a white political candidate stood at the entrance to the island, waiting to greet them. "There's plenty for everyone," he called, "come across." Then, suddenly one of the iron suspension chains broke free from its joist, whipping into the air. It flicked the politician into the water, where he drowned. Around him people who'd fallen off the bridge flailed in the shallows, some of them trapped under broken beams.
A black barber who'd been watching from the shore plunged into the water and pulled several victims to safety. Another barber yelled at the onlookers to maintain proper decorum, to have some respect for the dead and the hurt.
Two bodies were carried to a bowling alley on the island, and the injured were helped back to town. For days afterward, Richmond mourned. Reconstruction tends to be remembered as a time of race hatred and deep cynicism, a time when carpetbaggers descended from the North to buy up land and ragged ex-slaves sold their votes to shady politicians. This is only part of the truth.
Reconstruction was also like that picnic on Kitchen Island. For a moment, it had seemed possible for black and white people to march under a united banner, toward an enlightened future. In the late 1860s in Virginia, black delegates brought radical new ideas to the state's House of Delegates. Dr. Thomas Bayne, for instance, was an erudite dentist who wore elegant cutaway coats, and chided the Richmond newspapers for their racist comments. He and his colleagues envisioned a future of Jeffersonian dimensions, a democracy in which all men participated. The black delegates designed a public educational system and new way to vote — the secret ballot, which had never before been used in the United States.
But the bridge these visionaries planned to walk across was shaky indeed. They counted on the federal government to hold them up on their march to freedom, but by the mid-1870s Uncle Sam had other ideas. The Northern troops marched home, and with them went the firepower that had enforced equal rights. Almost immediately, the South slid into what it had been before the war. In 1876, Virginia instituted a poll tax that barred most blacks from voting. In the late '70s, the newly opened black schools began closing for lack of funds. In 1878, mixed marriages were proclaimed illegal. And by the end of the century even the railroads — last bastion of integration — had been outfitted with Jim Crow cars.
Had William Henry Sheppard Sr. lived in Richmond rather than a hundred miles away, he might well have been among the men on Kitchen Island; instead, he was raising his family in Waynesboro, Virginia, a whistle-stop town on the railroad line. But though he didn't have much occasion to travel to Richmond, William Sr. was the kind of man who might have shown up at a Conservative Party fund-raiser.
Like the two heroes of Kitchen Island, William Sr. worked as a barber. Most blacks had passed from slavery to sharecropping without much of a change in their fortunes, but a few had managed to rise out of poverty. Best off were undertakers, barbers, hairdressers, and others who rendered services to rich whites.
In a photo taken late in his life, William Sr. appears every inch the puritan, a biblical white beard flowing down over his stiff suit. He served in the town's First Presbyterian Church as a sexton, and was an imposing, strict man. "I was afraid of him and [his son William] was afraid of him, too," his grandnephew admitted in an interview many years later.
William Sr. ran his own shop; like so many barbers, he considered it part of his job to entertain his clients with conversation. While the men lay supine and swaddled under towels, the barber chatted with them about the latest news. It was an impressive performance. Because of his prodigious memory, William Sr. was able to rattle off the contents of the newspaper, which he had a literate friend read to him every morning. Few of his clients knew that their well-spoken barber could not read a word.
His wife, Fannie, appears to have been just as proper as her husband — in one photo, she wears delicate wire-framed glasses and an elaborate flounce at her collar. She worked an upscale job, tending ladies as a bath maid at Warm Springs Spa. As a mulatto freedwoman, she had never suffered the indignities of slavery. In the Augusta County Register of Free Blacks, Sarah Frances Martin is catalogued as "twenty-six years of age, ... of dark mulatto complexion, has a long scar on the left elbow and was born free."
Had her husband also been free? A grandson, interviewed in 1980, could not say. A grandnephew also did not seem to know, though he kept Fannie's free papers in a safe as a memento. If William Sr. had suffered as a slave, he never spoke of it to the young people in his family. And the children were too afraid of the gruff old Presbyterian to press him for details.
According to American law, slavery was passed along from mother to children, and so it was not surprising that Fannie's status mattered more to the family than did her husband's. Because of her freedom, neither her daughter, Eva, nor her son, William, could have been made slaves — though since the boy was born just as the Confederacy collapsed, the question only applied for the first month of his life.
If the post-Civil War period can be said to have had a black lower middle class, the Sheppards were part of it. They fared better, at least materially, than even some of the whites in Waynesboro. "Mother never turned anyone from her door who came begging, whether white or colored," her son remembers in his autobiographical book, Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo.
Still, William had to become a tough little boy. Accounts from the late nineteenth century attest that black children suffered a moment of awakening when they realized the amount of hatred directed at them. Perhaps the most eloquent account of this terrible epiphany is W. E. B. Du Bois's:
In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards — ten cents a package — and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card — refused it peremptorily with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others ... shut out from their world by a vast veil.
Sheppard never alludes to this veil that must have descended over him when he was a boy; more than that, he denies its very existence. "The white people were always very kind to us-as they were to all the colored people," he writes of his childhood in Waynesboro.
It's important to remember that Sheppard could not speak as freely as Du Bois. Throughout his life, he was most passionate about helping the people of the Congo — by raising donations and encouraging others to volunteer as missionaries. Even when he sat down to write his life story he had fund-raising in mind: in fact, one version of his autobiography was published as a kind of public relations pamphlet for the Presbyterian Foreign Mission. Outspoken when defending the rights of Africans, Sheppard never condemned American racism.
As a small boy, he had to bolster his parents' income with a variety of jobs: carrying water, hauling haycocks, fetching packages from the train station. At the age of eleven or twelve, William found himself a full-time job, as a stable boy to a dentist. Not yet a teenager, he left his hometown for Staunton, a town twelve miles away and cast his lot with his new employer.
The Henkels regarded him as something between a servant and a foster son. William slept above the stables perhaps, in clothing cast off from the Henkel children; he learned to read from hand-me-down grammar books; and the eager-to-please boy learned other arts simply by watching the family that swirled around him. How to converse and joke in a way that set white people at ease. How to harden his face into a mask when they discussed the race question. He loved the Henkels — as many as thirty years later, he was still writing letters to the dentist. And yet, as close as he became to the family, he knew they'd never accept him as one of their own.
In his autobiography, Sheppard chose just one anecdote to tell about his two years with the Henkels, a story about his boyish fear of the dentist's lab. "In a back room of the doctor's office," be remembered, "was a box filled with teeth. It puzzled me much to think how in the world people on resurrection day were to get their own teeth back." What the adult Sheppard thought of as an amusing story would not have been funny at all to the boy of eleven or twelve. It is a nightmare vision: bodies of Christians rising from the grave and zombie-walking through the dentist's office to reclaim their lost teeth, only to be confounded by the box full of identical yellow molars. Men and women unable to recognize what was once part of their own bodies. Lost identity. Alienation. The image captures the dizzying sense of disconnection that young William must have suffered as he struggled to make himself into the boy the Henkels wanted him to be.
After two years with the dentist, Sheppard found a job as a waiter and by age fifteen managed to save up enough money to go to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), far away from Waynesboro, in the southeastern corner of the state. Hampton was one of the few schools to offer advanced education to ex-slaves, Native Americans, and anyone else who could tough out its grueling work-study programs.
When Sheppard entered Hampton's innovative night school, it was run by a young teacher who would one day become the most famous black man in America: Booker T. Washington. He designed the school for students who were so poor that they couldn't pay for books or board. These students would work ten hours a day, attend classes for two hours a night, and study on top of that. Washington nicknamed his first graduates — Sheppard among them — "The Plucky Class."
Sheppard shrugged off the difficulties. "The first year I worked on the farm, and later worked in the bakery, going to school at night," he writes. "I loved to swim and fish, and every advantage was afforded to me. The Hampton creek was filled with fish, oysters and crabs, and the broad ocean beyond was at my disposal," he adds, making Hampton sound like a country club.
If Sheppard ignored his own hardship, it was perhaps because he'd been awakened to the suffering of others: The Hampton faculty an idealistic lot, drummed social consciousness into their students. "One Sabbath afternoon [the school's chaplain] asked me to accompany him and some of the teachers to establish a mission Sunday school at Slabtown, a small village of poor colored people. ... I felt from that afternoon that my future Work was to carry the gospel to the poor, destitute and forgotten people."
The black educational system emphasized practical skills and public service, a hardscrabble education that made blacks highly effective missionaries. Meanwhile in white schools, students prepared for work in Africa by reading Greek and Latin, and by arguing theological doctrine — skills that did not serve them well when a hippo charged or a disgruntled African lobbed a spear.
After he graduated from Hampton in the mid-1880s, Sheppard moved to Alabama to study for the ministry at Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (later renamed Stillman Institute; now Stillman College). Again, the difficulties he faced prepared him, far more so than his white colleagues, for the rigors of Africa. When he traveled south from Virginia to his new school, he had to scramble to find a meal or a cot, since most restaurants and hotels refused service to blacks. It was a lonely trip. "I well remember how lost I felt when I stepped off the train in Tuscaloosa at two o'clock in the night," he wrote about his first day of graduate school. "No one was there to meet me. I made inquiries of a man who was driving a street car drawn by mules, and he told me that he could direct me to a place where I could spend the night. I got on his car and he drove me up Greensboro Avenue to the corner of Tenth Street, stopped and told me [that] if I would walk a block and a half east and knock on the door of a house that was occupied by a family named Jones that they would take me in for the night."
But such difficulties did not dim the young man's enthusiasm, most especially his ambition to be a hero, a swashbuckling Christian crusader. Sheppard, just entering his twenties, was beginning to recognize himself as an extraordinary person.
One day he was languishing in class when he heard screams from outside — somebody was yelling, "Fire!" Not content to use the door, Sheppard dove out the window and ran in the direction of the blaze. He found himself in front of a house that had roared up in flames, trapping its occupant on the second floor. Sheppard galloped up the fiery stairs, through clouds of smoke, to carry the person outside. He ended the rescue mission with yet another vault from a window: "He continued working, bringing down the household effects until the blasting blaze shut off his movements. He then threw the remaining things from the second story window and leaped, himself, for life."
Excerpted from Black Livingstone by Pagan Kennedy. Copyright © 2013 Pagan Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Pagan Kennedy is a writer and a pioneer of the 1990s zine movement. She is the author of 10 books, is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, and has published articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Boston Magazine and the New York Times. She has served as a visiting professor of creative writing at Dartmouth College and has taught writing at Boston College and Johns Hopkins University. She is currently the design columnist for the New York Times Magazine. She lives in Boston.
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