This is an article from the March-April 2000 issue: The African American & Missions

Jewel of the Kingdom: William Sheppard

Jewel of the Kingdom: William Sheppard

William Sheppard was born in Waynesboro, Virginia in 1865 shortly after the close of the Civil War. His family of devoted Presbyterians was considered well-to-do in the African-American community. Bothfreed slaves, his father was a barber and his mother managed a Ladies Health Bath.

At the age of 16, William entered Hampton Institute and taught Sunday School in his home church. Several years later he entered Stillman College in Alabama, and was ordained as a minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church. But he did not fit in well with the Presbyterian churches in Alabama. Burdened to do "something else," in the 1880s he petitioned for missionary service. But the Presbyterians refused to appoint an African-American male as sole leader of a foreign mission station. It wasn't till 1890 that he arrived in the Congo, accepted because he had found a partner who shared the burden for Africa, Samuel N. Lapsley.

Sheppard was elated. The Luebo station in the Kasai Valley in the southern portion of the country became his new home. He felt he had found the work that God had called him to. The Africans warmly received this tall, strong, robust man. Sheppard set himself to learn and speak the native languages, mastering the language of the Kuba.

Sheppard soon served as the primary contact for Africans who became acquainted with the station. He was responsible for directing the practical needs of the mission. Lapsley, on the other hand, managed the finances and dealt with the colonial officials. The team of Lapsley and Sheppard worked well together. Both men preached, taught, provided medical assistance, ransomed slaves, and established relationships with the Africans. But the partnership came to a sad and abrupt end in March of 1892 when Lapsley died. Sheppard became the sole leader of the mission station.

Concentrating on the evangelization of the BaKuba, Sheppard took great care to understand their habits, customs and cultural differences. His correspondence conveys an evident respect for the differences among the African people groups and societies. Gaining recognition for his work with the Bakuba, Sheppard was made a fellow in the Royal Geographical Society--a great honor for any missionary.

In 1893, Sheppard returned to America and used his furlough as an opportunity to mobilize the African-American community for world evangelization. His eloquent speeches were covered by the African-American press, giving him a following with the public. As a result, significant monetary contributions were made to mission.

Later that year he married Lucy Gantt. A former member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a graduate of Talledega College, she had shared Sheppard's interest in missionary work. When they returned to Africa in 1894, the Sheppards were accompanied by a number of new additions: Henry Hawkins, Lillian Thomas, Maria Fearing and William Morrison. Morrison, the only non-Black of the new additions, was sent to direct the operation. By 1898, the work expanded and they opened another mission station on the Bakuba frontier. The station reported a total of 350 converts.

Sheppard's concern for the Africans led him to engage in both efforts of evangelism and improvement of living conditions. The origins of one of the more newsworthy events surrounding him began in 1891 when the Belgian government imposed taxes on the Africans. The revenue, it was argued, was needed to help pay for the colonial government. Matters were strained further when the Belgian government, working through the Kasai Company, began a forced-labor policy, putting Africans to work harvesting rubber.

In 1907, Sheppard wrote about the conditions--people were forced to work for meager wages, their homes were neglected, children were without parents--solely because the Belgian government wanted more rubber. Sheppard's charges were widely circulated, contributing to a scandal of international proportions. Both the American and the British governments became involved.

The Kasai Company filed a libel suit against Sheppard and Morrison for damages. An international trial ensued. The Presbyterian Church in the United States coordinated nationwide protests to keep the public informed. Eventually, both individuals were found not guilty.

Sheppard served with the Presbyterians for twenty years.

One of the first missionaries to experience unequal treatment, Sheppard informed African Americans that the colonial governments had changed their attitudes towards the African-American missionary. Eventually Sheppard approached Booker T. Washington about the discrimination that the African American missionary was confronted with on the field. Little developed from this meeting because of the First World War and the white mission establishment's lack of interest. Sheppard retired from the mission in 1910. He died in 1927. His major work, Pioneers in the Congo, published in 1917, tells of his 20 years of service to Africans.


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