The son of an African American barber and a “dark mulatto” mother who found work as a bath maid in Warm Springs, William Sheppard it is said grew up as close to middle class as could be for the Waynesboro of that time. His upbringing had religious tones to it as his father led family prayers and his mother would pray out loud with him as she put him to bed. His father was a sexton at the First Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro.
When Sheppard was 10 he moved in with his aunt and worked as a stable boy for the Henkel family in Staunton. He would remember the family fondly and maintained written correspondence for years, even through his adventures in Africa. In 1880 he enrolled at Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute (Hampton University) and worked his way through school as a waiter. He attended night classes and notably had classes taught by Booker T. Washington. After he graduated he moved on to Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (now known as Stillman College) in Alabama. In 1888 he became an ordained Presbyterian pastor in Atlanta, but his attention was elsewhere.
Sheppard had a fascination for native cultures, and for two years he petitioned the Presbyterian Foreign Missionary Board in Baltimore for permission to start a mission in Africa. Frustrated by the constant rejection letters, he ventured to Baltimore to visit the board in person only to be told he could not, as a black man, be sent without the supervision of a white person. But as fate would have it, there just so happened to be such a volunteer by the name of Samuel Lapsley. The two became close friends and in February 1890, they set sail for the Congo.
Into the Heart of Darkness
Upon arrival in the Congo Sheppard and Lapsley set to work spreading the Gospel. Sheppard learned the local language of the natives which allowed him to explore parts of the Congo no Westerner had visited before. At one point he even found himself sentenced to death in a village where his presence was unwelcome. But his ability to speak the local language convinced the king not to kill him. Ostensibly, by tricking the king into believing he was one of his dead relatives.
Disease was a factor of life. Sheppard himself had contracted malaria 22 times during his first years on the continent. In 1892 Samuel Lapsley died of fever. By the time of Lapsley’s death, Sheppard had grown more independent and was no longer under direct supervision. By then, Sheppard had started to make a name for himself. In 1893 he traveled to London and met Queen Victoria. He was also inducted into the Royal Geographic Society.
But it was upon his return to Congo before the close of the century that events took a turn in a way that William Sheppard could no longer ignore. Congo at the time was a colony of King Leopold II’s Belgium and the king was exploiting the region’s natural resources. Beatings, mutilations, enslavement, and mass killings were common place in the name of commerce. It is estimated that anywhere from 2 to 15 million people died during Belgium’s colonization of Congo. It was a situation that William Sheppard felt the world could not turn a blind eye.
The Presbyterian Church had an interest in bringing the atrocities to light. They sent a team to Congo to report incidents of abuse. Sheppard found himself as the investigator to confirm the reports. What he observed was truly horrific. Evidence of cannibalism, mutilations, enslavement, and killings were all observed by Sheppard. In one event, he witnessed 80 human right hands being prepared to be shipped off to state officers as proof of enforcement on and conquest of villages.
In January of 1900, the New York Times published an article describing the burning of 14 Congolese villages and the murder of more than 90 villagers by warriors sent to collect taxes on behalf of Leopold II. The article was based on reports from Presbyterian missionaries that Sheppard himself confirmed the atrocities for. Later, Mark Twain wrote and published a pamphlet titled King Leopold’s Soliloquy condemning the atrocities in which he mentioned William Sheppard by name and his account of the massacre.
William Henry Sheppard spent the last decades of his life in Louisville, Kentucky where he served as pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. He died in November, 1927. His legacy lives on not only as a missionary, but also in the context of the evolution of human rights and international humanitarian organizations. He was part of the creation of the Congo Reform Association which was one of the world’s first humanitarian organizations.
Locally, the story of William Henry Sheppard is finally coming to light. Though, it should be said, he deserves more recognition than he has received. It is through the efforts of the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation his story is now being locally shared.