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Afrique & histoire

2005/2 (vol. 4)

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In the Congo, the Belgians, as early as 1878, had shown interest in Negro Americans because of their long experience with the white man’s methods. But by the 1890s although they were still interested, a critical attitude was developing amongst the Negro American intelligentsia towards the Leopold régime which was not calculated to ensure a warm welcome for the coloured American in the future by the Congo authorities… Beginning with [George Washington] Williams and [William Henry] Sheppard, an image of the Belgian Congo as the quintessence of European exploitation of Africa was created amongst the Negro American which played no small part in shaping their attitude to Africa.

G. Shepperson, “Notes on Negro American Influences on the Emergence of African Nationalism [1][1] George Shepperson (1968 : 502).

Of the famous Europeans and Americans to work and travel in Central Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Presbyterian missionary William Henry Sheppard has, arguably, one of the most compelling personal histories [2][2] I wish to thank Donzella Maupin, Assistant Archivist.... As an American of African descent born in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, who was educated in an institution conceived during the Reconstruction Era (1868-1880), and who went on to preach the Christian gospel in Africa to Africans, he was joined in his mission by other Blacks who themselves had been slaves or were “free persons of color”. Black churches of his day saw “a positive role in education and missionary work that Negroes from America might play in Africa’s future [3][3] Ibid., p. 492.”. The Southern Presbyterian Church saw Blacks as the most natural proselytizers of the faith in Africa and Sheppard was their star among missionaries Black or White. He was considered in his time to be one of the greatest missionaries in the world.


Despite acclaim during his lifetime, after his death Sheppard’s achievements fell into obscurity. As W.E.B Du Bois prophetically wrote, the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line [4][4] W. E. B. Du Bois (1999 [1903] : 5, note 1).. At the time of Sheppard’s death in 1927, Black America was struggling against social, political and economic repression. “Race laws” were in full force, enacted after the failure of Reconstruction, a period of Black enfranchisement and activism after the Civil War during which the federal government sought to economically and politically empower four million freed slaves. Concurrently, four years after the end of Reconstruction and one year after Sheppard entered the seminary in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the African continent was divided among competing European powers (with the United States in attendance among 14 nations) at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. Confined for four hundred years to the African coasts, the major European powers struggled to gain control of the eighty percent of the continent that remained under the control of Africans. In political and cultural self interest, Blacks from America and the Caribbean organized the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900 [5][5] L.G. Shepperson (1968 : 503-504) writes, “Although.... Sheppard had already been in the Congo for a decade.


Westerners such as Émile Torday and Leo Frobenius, whom Sheppard preceded in the Kasai Region of the Belgian Congo, from their first publications remained prominent in the annals of Central African ethnography and exploration. Sheppard’s authoritative accounts, based on years of substantial experience in the region, merited not a footnote for four decades after his death [6][6] Sheppard was in contact with the Kuba people for twenty.... Besides manuscripts published by the Presbyterian Church, it is only since the 1960’s that interest has been revived in his life and work, becoming quite active in the last two decades [7][7] P. Kennedy, (2002 : 200). Hampton University Archives.... This is partly due to the adventure of his story, and partly to the opportunity to reexamine a fascinating chapter in the historic relationship between the struggle for economic and social parity of Blacks in America and the struggle against Africa’s colonization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


This discussion is not a chronology of Sheppard’s achievements in Africa, or of the world’s reaction to him. There are already published accounts that give a thorough recounting of his exploits [8][8] The following books about Sheppard give an account.... It does seek to probe contextually Sheppard’s achievements from his cultural vantage point, and to place who he was in the perspective of his education and talents. It places him among an intelligentsia whose debates and ideas about Africa were experienced at all levels of the Black society of his time. It was an activist intelligentsia that did not speak with one voice, that saw itself as African, and that had sought social justice for freepersons and slaves since the Revolutionary War.


Tall, charismatic and physically striking, with endurance, energy and possessing a heroic nature (fig. 1), Sheppard made his mark on the world stage in 1890 as the first Westerner to set foot in the Kuba Kingdom in Central Africa. He is virtually the only witness to the last of the great courts of Central Africa as these existed before the colonial era. Sheppard would be an outsized personality in any time. He was the first Black man to become a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in England, an honor he received for his exploration of the Kuba and as the discoverer of a lake in the Kasai region unknown to the West at the time [9][9] Sheppard accepted his Fellowship and spoke at Exeter....

Fig. 1 Fig. 1

William Morrison and Sheppard with a buffalo carcass. Sheppard was a superb huntsman who shot many big game animals that he often gave to the population for food.

Courtesy Hampton University Archives.

To understand Sheppard’s importance as an ethnographer, explorer, celebrity and internationally-known champion of the rights of Africans, he must first be understood in the context of his education and the ideologies of the Black intelligentsia of his day. Important as well, is the photographic record of mission life at Luebo and Ibanj contrasted with the images of Congolese as they presented themselves (fig. 2) [10][10] Images of Sheppard and his family and Ibanj can be.... Information about his public persona is contained in his writings, contemporary biographies and newspaper accounts of his speeches and exploits, and the broadsheets and picture cards of Sheppard with his wife and young children (fig. 3). The broadsheets and postcards, in particular, were used to raise funds and to recruit Blacks for the missionary effort. Their impact can only be adequately assessed in relation to the derogatory racist imagery of the day for their power to evoke a genteel Black bourgeoisie in harmony with White American cultural values. The archives of Hampton University are full of such carefully constructed images of the school from around Sheppard’s formative years onward and such documentation was actively pursued [11][11] The derogatory image of Blacks in the United States.... Finally, both his commentary on and the objects he collected can be read as documents that reveal his talent for intrepid observation, his relationship with the Kuba people and his legacy for Central African ethnography.

Fig. 2 Fig. 2

Prince Maxamalenge and wife. Sheppard was close friends with him from his first visit to the Kuba capitol in 1892 and also called his son Maxamalenge as his African name. The boy was known as “Max” throughout his life.

Courtesy Hampton University Archives.
Fig. 3 Fig. 3

“William H. Sheppard, F.R.G.S., and Wife”, postcard, 1905. Such cards were used to proselytize the success of the missionary effort in Africa. The image of the Sheppards as a genteel bourgeois couple was in stark contrast to the racially derogatory images of the time.

Courtesy Hampton University Archives.

There were various intellectual reactions by Blacks to slavery as an institution. As early as the late eighteenth century a number of American Blacks had emigrated to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The inventor of the slogan “Africa for Africans” was Harvard-educated Martin Delaney, the only Black to receive a field commission during the Civil War. Considered the father of the Back to Africa Movement, a current in Black thought to leading the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, Delaney visited Liberia in 1859 and was impressed by what he saw. The famous Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, saw such sentiments as dangerously counterproductive to arguments used against slavery that sought to free and enfranchise Blacks on American soil. After the Civil War, Black newspapers carried the ideas of the leading Black thinkers of the day, and Black churches played a crucial role by disseminating this discussion to all classes of Black society [12][12] M. Drimmer, (1968 : 491-496).. Among American Blacks, the political, economic and cultural spheres operated concurrently and with equal value across class lines, a fact that Harold Cruse noted was later lost on much of the political left in America [13][13] H. Cruse (1967 : 42).. Moreover, after Reconstruction, the church remained the major sphere in which talented Blacks could develop and exercise social and political leadership. For example, Drimmer quotes from Isaac’s The New World of the Negro American :

“Professor Rayford Logan remembers that as a boy he ‘heard the great Negro missionary [William Henry] Sheppard, who told us about the mutilation in the Congo. It made an indelible impression on me. In the humblest Negro church there was a willingness to give in order to send missionaries, an interest in people’s need of the Gospel and a special interest in Africa because we knew we were descendants of Africans [14][14] M. Drimmer (1968 : 492).’”.

Some Black churches that sent missionaries to Africa instigated, joined or influenced the most radical movements against colonial regimes. Drimmer commenting on the above states :

“These missionaries brought more than the Gospel. Negro American missionaries were viewed with great suspicion as teaching subversive ideas, and many of the African students who came home from training in America reinforced this view by becoming agitators and revolutionaries. For example, Daniel Chilembwe of Nyasaland (Malawi), trained at the Negro Virginia Theological Seminary and supported in his work by Negro American Baptists, led a rebellion in 1915. Three American-educated Africans were active in the formation and growth of the African Native National Congress in South Africa [15][15] Ibid. p. 492.”.

It is too simplistic to think of the trade and normal schools that were established after the Civil War, such as Hampton and Tuskegee, or the Black theological seminaries, such as Stillman Institute, as narrowly reformist when contrasted with schools such as Howard University that was established from the beginning as an institution of higher learning [16][16] Howard was established in 1867 by an Act of Congress.... Both types of historically Black institutions have been central to Black progress in America. When there was a decline of interest in Africa due to the failure of the Garvey Movement, the first grass-roots Black-nationalist movement in the United States, and the economic deprivations of the Depression, African’s continued in increasing numbers to be educated at these schools. Institutes like Hampton became a combination of programs for “social uplift” and, in time, places where Black cultural leaders and thinkers of various persuasions found an audience and disseminated their ideas. Sheppard himself, who attended Hampton Institute from 1881-1883, may have heard Edward Blyden, “a leading politician and pioneer theorist of the ‘African personality’”, speak at the school in 1883. A West Indian born in St. Thomas in 1832, Blyden warned his audience “against European travelers’ accounts of Africa, declaring ‘No people can interpret Africa but Africans [17][17] G. Shepperson, “Notes…”, p. 494.’”.


Sheppard’s attendance from 1881 to 1883 at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was the most formative period of his life. The eighty-four normal and high schools and sixteen colleges that were founded by 1879 [18][18] W.E.B. Du Bois (1970 : 665). had a profound effect upon Sheppard’s generation of Black Americans and would, during the next 80 years, produce proponents of Pan-Africanism and train influential African nationalists who would ultimately bring the Colonial Era to an end [19][19] W.E.B. Du Bois (1970 : 665) ; G. Shepperson (1968.... A photograph from the Hampton University Archives titled “Hampton’s Girdle Around the World” c. 1890, the year that Sheppard left for Africa, shows the diverse nature of its student body [20][20] “Hampton’s Girdle Around the World”, published in M.L. .... Students such as these and, later, Peter Mbiyu Koinange, a Gikuyu from Kenya, contributed to the museum collection at Hampton that was established by its founder General Samuel Chapman Armstrong in 1868. Armstrong, a father figure to Sheppard and to Booker T. Washington, its most famous alumni, requested that Sheppard collect for this rich and diverse collection. As a result, Hampton owns the earliest collected Kuba objects in the world and the first African collection made by an African American.


It was at Hampton that Sheppard’s evangelical zeal was formed [21][21] K. L. Schall (1977 : 120).. Founded in 1868 by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who had commanded Black troops for the Union Army during the Civil War, Hampton could not have survived without the tenacious motivation of its Black students who, in the early years, endured many privations for the sake of their education [22][22] R. F. Engs (1999 : 102).. Over four million slaves were freed by the war. While there was some literacy among Blacks free and slave, well over 95 % were illiterate. Forty-five years later, as Sheppard’s sojourn in Central Africa was ending, two-thirds of all Blacks in America were literate despite significant social impediments [23][23] W.E.B. Du Bois (1970 : 638-702).. For Blacks, education was the great leveler in the struggle for equality and economic progress. Hampton’s most famous alumni and contemporary of Sheppard, the former slave and educator Booker T. Washington observed, “Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn [24][24] Ibid. p. 631.”.


At Hampton, the students not only took the program, but were exhorted to teach in the local communities. Sheppard, who was born free and who came from a relatively comfortable background, went out to Slabtown, a poor Black village one mile from the school, for home mission work. Sheppard did not finish his program at Hampton. In 1883, he went to Tuscaloosa Theological Institute in Alabama (later Stillman Institute) graduating in 1886. It was during his exams that he was asked that if he was called to go to Africa as a missionary would he accept. Sheppard answered that he would gladly go. In 1888, Sheppard was ordained by Atlanta Presbytery to be pastor of Zion Church, a Black congregation in Atlanta, Georgia [25][25] W. Phipps (2002 : 9-10).. In 1890 after numerous petitions, he left for Luebo in the Congo with fellow missionary John Lapsley, who was White [26][26] Sheppard was not permitted as a Black man the authority.... After Lapsley’s untimely death in March of 1892, Sheppard went alone with nine Congolese to search for Mushenge, the Kuba capital. He would subsequently found the Ibanj mission in Kuba territory. Sheppard always credited Hampton Institute as his spiritual home, and its program as the architecture of his life [27][27] Ibid. p. 179.. The unfortunate John Lapsley, whose death Sheppard grieved, described him as “a man of unusual grace and strong points of character [28][28] W. Phipps (1991 : 27).”.


A rare broadsheet (fig. 4) published in Virginia that is in the Sheppard Collection in the Hampton University Archives was probably published to commemorate his speaking tour of 1894, when he was home on one of his two furloughs from the Congo, shows Sheppard in his official portrait as a newly inducted Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, a tremendous achievement for any traveler to the continent at the time. It is all the more striking as Sheppard was 28 year-old and the son of a father who had been a former slave. On either side of Sheppard’s portrait are two Christian hymns. Sheppard was a natural linguist. The two hymns are translated into the Kuba language (fundamental for spreading the word of the Gospel). In the upper right hand corner, there is an image of the missionary steamboat, the Samuel Lapsley, that plied the waters of the Congo and the Kasai Rivers and, in the upper left hand corner, a map showing the lower quadrant of the Belgian Congo from Stanley Poole to the Kasai region, the site of the missions where Sheppard preached and made conversions among the local populations (it may be added, with much difficulty). Especially noteworthy is the inscription, “God bless you and cause you to pity the benighted millions of Africa. Your humble and obedient servant. W.H. Sheppard, F.R.G.S. [Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society]”. Obviously meant to raise funds for the mission, the broadsheet is evidence of the public appeal of Sheppard, of his heroic persona and accomplishments that were deemed important to sustaining the missionary effort. Such a document was especially meant to recruit other Blacks. A pamphlet published by the Southern Presbyterian Church as propaganda for its seminary for Blacks at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, from which Sheppard himself graduated, explicitly states this program :

“From Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Luebo, Congo Independent State, is a far cry, but in a wonderful way God has permitted us to bridge these thousands of miles, and the two places are now closely connected… At Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Southern Presbyterian Church has a school for the training of Colored preachers. This is done simply and sensibly. No Greek, Latin, or Hebrew is taught. The English Grammar and the Bible are the principal text-books. Most of the graduates preach the gospel to the ignorant and needy people of their race in the South. A few of the graduates, who feel strongly called thereto, are trained to be missionaries to their savage forefathers in Africa [29][29] J. G. Sendecor, and Dr J. Little (before 1898)”.

Fig. 4 Fig. 4

A broadsheet probably used to recruit missionaries, especially black Americans, when Sheppard was on furlough to America in 1893-94 for a speaking tour to raise money for the Presbyterian Congo Mission. The image of Sheppard is his official portrait as a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in England.

Courtesy Hampton University Archives.

The notion of the cultural and moral inferiority of African peoples elicited two responses from Sheppard’s generation. The first was an acceptance of African cultures as inferior, the remedy to which was to train Africans to compete with the West on its own terms technologically, morally and politically laying the foundations for “African nationalism and collective achievement”. The second response was to discredit the notion of Western superiority by investigating the achievements of the African past [30][30] G. Shepperson, (1968 : 495).. The most famous example of the latter is Alain Locke’s landmark essay (and later an anthology) “The New Negro”, published two years before Sheppard’s death, in which the African ancestral cultures of Black Americans are given value as equal to any in the world and declared the foundation of a unique “Negro American” culture [31][31] A. Locke, (1925 : 631-634)..


The debate over the most effective education for Blacks was highly politicized in America and would occupy a central and controversial ideological position among late 19th and early 20th century Black intellectuals. An industrial education (espoused by Hampton-trained Booker T. Washington) versus higher education for the most talented (espoused by Harvard Ph.D. W.E.B. Du Bois) to lift Blacks out of the conditions left by slavery was central to this debate. Skilled and freely undertaken labor was seen as spiritually uplifting for Blacks who had known the co-option of their labor through the coercion of slavery. Photographs of students produced at Hampton Institute and at the Luebo mission at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century often depicted work in highly aesthetic compositions. The stunning image of the lovely Portia, a Hampton student, ironing laundry that was taken by Leigh Richmond Minor for the Camera Club, belongs to the conscious creation of a new and desirable community of African peoples when compared to Sheppard’s recreation of the motif in a photograph of African girls at an ironing table in Luebo (figs. 5 & 6) [32][32] Both images can be found in the Hampton University.... Upon the failure of Reconstruction (1868-1880) to economically lift Blacks out of slavery and the subsequent rise of laws aimed at keeping Blacks economically subservient, it was politically expedient to emphasize industrial training over an intellectual education. In fact, in 1906 in a reprint in The Kasai Herald from The Missionary Review of the World, the importance of an industrial education in the missionary context was commented upon by its major proponent in America, Booker T. Washington, leader of Tuskegee Institute and, like Sheppard, a product of Hampton. Washington is quoted at length from the succinct statement of the social and cultural agenda he espoused :

“From conversations with missionaries and from our own Tuskegee students who have gone out to Africa as teachers, I learn the conditions that the missionary encounters among the weaker races are not wholly unlike those that we meet in the Southern States to-day. In both cases we have to deal with races that need moral and intellectual training, but who need, also, the material and social conditions which will support and provide a basis for a higher civilization, into which this sort of teaching seems to invite them to enter. They need to learn habits of industry individual initiative and to acquire the notions of property that preserve to the individual the fruits of his labor. Without these the weaker races must inevitably fall behind, and perhaps perish, in the severe competition with the stronger races. From this competition, on some terns or other, there is no escape. Since the white race has penetrated into Central Africa there is no place where the weaker races have not come under the influence and domination of the stronger races. It is part of the task of the missionary to make those influences a blessing rather than, what they too often have been, a curse. There are parts of Africa to-day in which the Christian missionary organizations seem to be all that stand between the natives and the forces that are ruthlessly crushing out their existence [33][33] B. T. Washington (1906 : 36). In the same issue,...”.

Fig. 5 Fig. 5

Portia ironing.

Photograph by Richard Leigh Minor, Hampton Institute c. 1900. Courtesy Hampton University Archives.
Fig. 6 Fig. 6

“The girls doing laundry work”, titled by William Sheppard. Probably taken at the Ibanj mission, 1906-08.

Courtesy Hampton University Archives.

There are several observances to be gleaned from this passage and the passage previously cited from the pamphlet, Tuscaloosa to Luebo. The critical difference between the objectives of Blacks like the missionary-ethnographer-explorer Sheppard and explorers and ethnographers such as Torday or Frobenius (whom Sheppard preceded to the Kuba) was the formers’ racial identification with Africans. To Blacks of the time, many of whom accepted the notion that Africans were inferior in the technologies that created property and wealth from labor and in moral culture because they were practicing animists, Black Africans were nonetheless “forefathers”. Black missionaries and proponents of institutes like Hampton, Tuskegee and Stillman saw themselves as adopting a strategy that would help prevent the annihilation of Blacks in the southern United States and Africa at the hands of the civilized, economically and politically superior Western nations [34][34] T. F. Gossett (1965 : 285) writes : “But what is....


In response to Washington, and in the tradition of their mutual educational background, an industrial school was established at Ibanj by 1906. It was at Ibanj that Sheppard, A. L. Edmiston and their wives strove to create an environment illustrative of the Christian and social ideals to which they aspired as Black Americans in response to the abolition of slavery. Pagan Kennedy, in her book on Sheppard, delves into his motivations and those of the other missionaries to create a situation at Ibanj that was free of prejudice, replete with social justice and a physically shining example of a community where Black people worked and lived in control of their environment. Sheppard was a highly successful administrator of the day to day workings of the mission, first at Luebo, after the death of Samuel Lapsley and before the arrival of William Morrison when he was solely in charge as he was later at Ibanj, a mission station collectively created by Black missionaries [35][35] P. Kennedy (2002 : 151-152)..


To the Kuba, and in his own mind, Sheppard was a chief [36][36] Ibid., p. 153. Kennedy speaks of an archival photo .... The Kuba had deemed him a prince upon his first arrival at the capital, the reincarnation of the deceased king Bope Mekabe [37][37] M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 9) ; and P. Kennedy.... He soon demonstrated that he was a successful and fearless big-game hunter. In the southern savannas of Central Africa, the attributes of the buffalo are associated with the attributes of chiefship : boldly powerful yet cunning and stealthy ; implacable in action yet capable of a cool stillness. At the turn on the twentieth century, some chiefs still wore an ancient coiffure like that of a Bushongo chief that Émile Torday published in 1925 as the frontispiece of On the Trail of the Bushongo (fig. 7). It is a highly stylized rendering of the bush buffalo’s horns. The hair is cut to form a ridge around the back of the head wrapping forward to a horn shape over each temple. Pregnant women were also allowed to wear this stylized coiffure thus connecting leadership, power and authority to fertility. In a number of masquerades of the region, of which the Kuba mwaash-mbwooy mushall and the Pende kipoko are two examples, the buffalo coiffure is alluded to in the high stylization of the mask. There is a clear relationship to the Torday images [38][38] E. Torday (1925, frontispiece and top illustrations.... Sheppard as an intrepidly successful hunter of such dangerous iconic animals that he gifted to the indigenous populations proved himself a powerful, productive and generous leader. In time, Sheppard controlled several villages surrounding the Ibanj mission, a fact that caused resentment among the local chiefs who as a result lost tax revenues. As leaders acknowledging a leader, important chiefs struck agreements with Sheppard necessary for the coexistence of the mission in a volatile region.

Fig. 7 Fig. 7

“A Bushongo Chief of the Isambo Sub-Tribe. He wears his hair to imitate buffalo’s horns after the ancient fashion”.

After the Frontispiece from On the Trail of the Bushongo, c 1908. Photograph by Emil Torday.

It is known that during his long sojourn in Africa, especially at times when he was without his wife’s companionship, Sheppard had lovers among the Kuba women and fathered a son by one of them. An African servant testified against him to church superiors, causing the loss of his post in 1910. The matter was handled with the utmost secrecy. The announcement of the departure of the Sheppards from the field in the Annual Report of 1910 adroitly avoids making public the real reason. Sheppard was not the only missionary who succumbed to such temptations. Other missionaries Black and White took up with African women, and it was a common practice among traders and the like. William Morrison, who sent him into harms way to gather evidence of mistreatment of the Congolese and who faced trial with him in Leopoldville, brought the charges against Sheppard and other Black Presbyterian missionaries. He was almost unanimously effective, thus ending a unique chapter in the colonial history of Central Africa [39][39] P. Kennedy (2002 : 190-191).. Arguably, Sheppard’s affairs would have been seen by the Kuba to be an indication of his virility as a leader. The average Kuba man was monogamous, but the great leader had numerous wives. Kennedy writes that Sheppard was even considered a serious contender for the throne, given his reputation, perhaps originally a political contrivance of the Kuba, as a reincarnated former Kuba king [40][40] Ibid., p. 89 as reincarnated king, and p. 178-180,.... Sheppard’s bold personality, fearlessness, generosity and virility conformed to the nature of the founder chief whose ability to lead is confirmed by his iconoclasm (Sheppard was the bringer of a new world-view), but who nonetheless embodies the law (Sheppard participated in Kuba power relations and sought to establish Christian practices over certain indigenous ones). It is a reasonable assertion that this paradox of power, at once sacred and profane in the indigenous context, characterized Sheppard’s unique relationship with the Kuba.


For a man of Sheppard’s gifts, Ibanj was an historic experiment through which a Black man could exercise authority and be autonomous. Sheppard was a master politician and adroit strategist who strove not to offend the sensibilities of his White superiors or the agents of the Belgian government so that he could maintain his unique situation on the border of the Kuba kingdom. In this, he fell back on Hampton Institute as a model for his work at Ibanj. In a short article titled “A Congo Rocking Chair”, in 1908 in The Kasai Herald, A.L. Edmiston extolled a rocking chair made by Kuba boys at Ibanj 1,200 miles inland from the seacoast as remarkable (fig. 8). To his opening remarks Sheppard added ; “Mr. Edmiston has struck the keynote. There are now sixty-seven (67) Bakuba boys and young men who are learning trades, such as carpentering, blacksmithing, mat making, tailoring, basket making, etc. They are also in the regular school ; and hearing the gospel [41][41] W.H. Sheppard, “A Congo Rocking Chair”, The Kasai ...”. Sheppard words describe the program at Hampton Institute he had himself experienced. Moreover, as a gifted ethnographer Sheppard knew that the Kuba were superb workers in iron and copper (Kuba royalty was trained in blacksmithing and metal working, considered sacred transformative acts) ; that they made beautiful mats and textiles for adornment and as grave goods. He knew that they carved impressive sculpture and wove intricate baskets. For Sheppard and his fellow Black missionaries it was not the native manufacture, no matter how grand, but industry as the means for spiritual uplift that was the hallmark of a “superior” civilization [42][42] R.F. Engs (1999 : 80) points out that “industry”.... This rocking chair, imbued with iconic importance, was presented to Dr L. Drepondt, the director of the Compagnie du Kasai. The gift of the chair and the publication of Drepondt’s thank-you letter can be seen as politically strategic. The missionaries had a sometimes mutually beneficial relationship with Drepondt. It was reported in The Kasai Herald in 1906 that he had helped four of them travel during the dry season when the waters were too low for the Compagnie du Kasai steamer (July, No. 3) [43][43] The Kasai Herald, 1906, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 27.. Perhaps it was also meant to mollify strained relations with a concern that ruthlessly represented the economic interests of Belgium over Africans.

Fig. 8 Fig. 8

“A Congo Rocking Chair”, made in the industrial program, 1908, at Ibanj.

Presbyterian Historical Society, Presbyterian Church, USA (Montreat, N.C.).

In 1900, Sheppard himself had investigated atrocities, mutilated corpses and chained Congolese hostages of The Congo Free State with the newly invented Kodak box camera. On orders from William Morrison, appointed his superior in 1897 at Luebo, Sheppard had gone with notebook and camera to document a massacre by the Zappo-Zaps (Songye) at Pianga. Every step of the way he survived being killed with quick thinking and fast talking. Sheppard’s coolness in the face of death and a willingness to follow orders that could have cost him his life manifested his intrepid nature and inordinate luck. Morrison, who did not take the risk, used Sheppard’s report to substantiate the atrocities to the Belgian administration. The Belgians dire economic exploitation of the local population that Sheppard discovered upon his return from furlough to the field in 1906 was strongly objected to by the missionary community.


Always before, Sheppard had been careful. He had made his criticisms of Belgian brutality almost anonymously and did not call attention to the situation while on the speaking circuit in late 1903. As Pagan Kennedy writes, “The church had hired Sheppard to raise money, not to raise hell”. Sheppard himself answered his White colleagues who were indignant at his lack of engagement with these issues on the lecture circuit, “Being a Colored man, I would not be understood criticizing a White government before White people [44][44] P. Kennedy (2002 : 159).”. The year after Sheppard presented the rocking chair to the powerful Drepondt, in 1909, would see him and his superior William Morrison sued for libel and threatened with a huge fine and a jail sentence by the Belgian government. Morrison had been a continual thorn in the side of the Belgian authorities, but it was Sheppard’s unambiguous article in the Kasai Herald decrying the destruction of the Kuba and their culture by the Compagnie du Kasai that precipitated events. From his return in 1906 to 1908, Sheppard had worked at Ibanj amid the extreme suffering of a population that he had known in its great days. Now, everywhere he looked was ruin. Court, king, husbandry, architecture, culture, and ceremony had been impoverished. The reaction of the Belgian authorities would be brought to the attention of the governments of the United States and Europe and make Sheppard an international celebrity. Morrison was dropped from the case on a technicality and the charges against Sheppard were proven absurd in a defense by the leading Belgian socialist lawyer, Émile Vandervelde, who traveled to the Congo at the request of the Presbyterian Congo Missions to represent the two American missionaries at Leopoldville. After Sheppard’s death, however, it was Morrison who became the lone champion of these events [45][45] Ibid., p. 200.. The renewed interest in Sheppard has reinstated him in the record of this sad chapter of the colonial history of Central Africa.


Thus, always lurking nascent in Black missionary activity, no matter how “reformist”, were the seeds of resistance. No matter that Sheppard followed the lead of the trade school model at the recommendation of Booker T. Washington who preached accommodation with the White man, and no matter how clever he was at avoiding trouble, moral repugnance pulled Blacks who had lived intimately with the spiritual impoverishment of slavery into the fray. Ultimately, American Blacks were challenged by events in Africa to act. It was inevitable that movements valorizing African cultures would eventually emerge in African American activism and thought. In the most radical expression of these movements, the most impressive cultures of Africa would be seen as superior to the racist West. Paradoxically, missionaries such as Sheppard made this worldview possible through the collection and study of the material culture of African peoples brought back to Black institutions such as Hampton. From the beginning, despite narrow characterizations of such institutions, these collections were used at Hampton as teaching tools to instill racial pride in settings begun during Reconstruction for the education of freed Blacks. This was a brief period that sought to more equitably distribute economic and social power in race relations in America. Early programs, such as the African Studies program established at Hampton in 1873, educated a Black leadership familiar with cultures of the African continent and who matriculated with Africans who would, in time, create movements for independence from colonial rule [46][46] M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 24-25) ; and G. Shepperson,.... This took place even though it is fair to say that such institutions were, and still are, culturally conservative.


The lives and careers of such Black intellectuals as Alain Locke, who was at the forefront of revalorizing African culture and other writers and visual artists, for example, of the Harlem Renaissance and the international Négritude movement in which Locke was prominent, would overlap with the lives of the early missionaries. As noted above, Alain Locke’s seminal anthology, The New Negro, was published in 1925 two years before Sheppard’s death. Sheppard had used his collection to demonstrate the nature of the African culture he encountered during his lectures for the Congo Presbyterian Mission on furloughs home to raise money. These talks were given in-depth descriptive accounts in the Black press. A Hampton photo from 1920 shows a domestic economics class examining Kuba textiles from the Sheppard collection [47][47] Hampton University Archives. Published as figure 3..., a unique educational experience in any institution of the time.


During Sheppard’s time, objects that had been brought back from Africa by colonial administrators and missionaries were being reassessed by the West as great world art. Through a well received exhibition containing material from the collection of Belgian diplomat Raoul Blondiau that he had helped to acquire for Theatre Arts Monthly magazine, Alain Locke, in 1927, was responsible in securing works from that collection to augment Hampton’s already significant holdings of Kuba material. Part of that collection also went to the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. The Harvard educated Locke taught at Howard University from 1912 and in his will in 1954 left a collection of African art to the school. Founded upon a different educational philosophy than the industrial schools, Howard afforded Locke influence upon the most elite educated Blacks. The early international connections of Black schools through missionaries, not only with West and Central Africa, but with Native Americans, the Caribbean and with Asian and Eastern European nations were essential to the formation of an international world-view and the subsequent cultural movements and progressive thinkers that developed among African Americans. In this way, the industrial schools (Hampton) and institutions of higher learning (Howard) impacted the Black intelligentsias of Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.


Not only the material cultures the Black missionaries encountered, but the ones they themselves established are matter for fascinating studies. Sheppard and his fellow Black missionaries, like A.L. Edmiston who laid out the plan for the church at Ibanj [48][48] The Kasai Herald, July 1906, No. 3, p. 29., were responsible for the conception and design of the impressively built environment of the Ibanj mission where all sorts of illustrious men Black and White “came tramping through town and depended on Black Americans’ hospitality… As unofficial mayor, he [Sheppard] would rule over a utopia of African American achievement. For the station of Ibaanc [sic] was built, staffed, designed, and supervised entirely by Black people [49][49] P. Kennedy (2002 : 151-152).”. Sheppard was joined in his labor by Black men and women who shared his dreams and motivations. Among the Black missionaries who imported a southern Black ethos to Central Africa was his wife, Lucy Gantt Sheppard, who unstintingly served with him at Luebo and Ibanj. Of two remarkable women who originally came alone as missionaries, Althea Brown and Maria Fearing, Fearing’s story is the most indelible. She was recruited by Sheppard in her fifties. A former slave who paid for her own education at Talladega College, Maria Fearing went to Africa unsupported by the Congo Presbyterian Mission board who did not want to be responsible for her because of her age. Fearing paid her own passage and with her personal resources purchased African children out of slavery, schooling and rearing them at the Luebo mission. She did this until forced to retire from the field in her eighties [50][50] Ibid., p. 113 and 118.. Such rectitude informed the daily structure of time and events at these missions. The skills instilled by the industrial training of the Black schools brought a certain harmony and visual clarity to the living environment.


No discussion about who Sheppard was and his impact can be complete without mentioning the objects that he collected and sold to Hampton in 1911 and the images of the cultures he encountered. Sheppard in Africa was a man in a world of aesthetic sensibilities. This can be seen in images from Ibanj : the gracefully-posed missionaries in their suits and sharply pressed dresses in front of well-built homes (The Sheppard Collection, Hampton University Archives, Hampton, Virginia), the clarity of the structure of the church interior with its polished and whitewashed dirt floors (fig. 9) and the arches of the Sheppards’ front porch where his little son, Max, poses among African men (The Sheppard Collection ; and The Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat, North Carolina) ; Sheppard (fig. 10) posing with Max in front of his well-tended field gear on a short trip with native helpers and children (The Sheppard Collection and The Presbyterian Historical Society) [51][51] “Many trips were made into the interior, visiting scores.... The juxtaposition of images and actors in this drama of cultural encounter draws the viewer into an extraordinary world where the vision of a more just and gracious society born out of the experience of American slavery meets the great court of the Kuba.

Fig. 9 Fig. 9

A postcard titled “Interior Lapsley Memorial Chapel, Built by the Natives Congo, Central Africa”.

Presbyterian Historical Society, Presbyterian Church, USA (Montreat, N.C.).
Fig. 10 Fig. 10

“A short journey inland”. Sheppard with his young son, Congolese children and adults. Sheppard made many trips to proselytize the Christian faith and inform the Congolese why the Presbyterian Congo Mission was in the Kasai.

Presbyterian Historical Society, Presbyterian Church, USA (Montreat, N.C.).

Sheppard, in his generosity, gave away many objects that he collected. He sold most of his collection to Hampton in 1911 and annotated the list of objects in 1911 and 1915 [52][52] See the essay by M.L. Hultgren and J. Zeidler (1993.... It is invaluable field documentation. There are not only Kuba objects but also objects from the Luba, Songye, Biombo, Soko, Kela, Lulua, Ngala, Teke, Ngata, and Mbuyu (Bockombuya following Sheppard). The majority, however, are Kuba. The list includes objects of ritual, ceremony and rank, among them : a beaded mukyeem helmet mask (related in style to the mwaash-mbwooy mushall but with a stylized elephant trunk at the top) ; a crocodile oracle and various charms ; an intricately patterned Kuba warrior’s insignia horn, extremely fine examples of decorated pipe bowls and cups, some with anthropomorphic motifs, as well as forms of laket, the Kuba hat (head covering) that is elaborated into various insignia of rank. There are shields, and superb examples of metalwork in knives, axes and adze, the finest being given by the king and princes to Sheppard as gifts. The single most important example will be discussed below. There are objects from daily life. In Hampton’s collection are, hat pins, carved boxes, sometimes used to store knives or cakes of red camwood (tukula) powder to cover objects and the body, and neckrests. Various types of the refined Kuba basketry are represented. One of the most important areas of excellence in the Sheppard collection is its textiles. The collection contains some of the oldest examples of Central African raffia cloth in the world. One exceptional piece may date as early as the mid 18th centuries [53][53] From notes by W.H. Sheppard on the Sheppard Collection,.... The variety, quality, and the date when they were collected make Hampton’s holdings one of the most important from the Kuba, who have produced one of the greatest textile traditions on the African continent. Since cultural information can be learned from the function of these textiles in Kuba society, the most ancient pieces, like those in the Sheppard collection, are of great historical importance [54][54] D. Binkley and P. Darish, “Introductory Catalogue ....


Sheppard left a number of indelible images that contextualize his cultural motivations and his response to the African environment he encountered. A charming photograph of Sheppard being shaven by a bare-breasted native woman juxtaposed with a collection of the razors he selected and sold to Hampton published by William Phipps in The Sheppard’s and Lapsley : Pioneer Presbyterians in the Congo[55][55] W. Phipps (1991). This image is in the archives of.... In the image, Sheppard is clearly enjoying himself. His posture is easy, vital yet relaxed, with one hand gracefully slung over his knee. The woman is obviously ministering to someone she respects. She has effaced herself in the act that she performs. Sheppard’s pose is the posture of a supremely confident man at ease in the world around him. A collection of Kuba razors acquired in 1990 by Hampton University Museum shows the aesthetic elaboration of detail in Kuba design that Sheppard so admired.


Sheppard published the image of a Kete helmet mask in a story that he wrote for children [56][56] After returning from Africa, Sheppard wrote a series.... Shepard’s caption identifies the mask as one worn by a “witch doctor” and indicates the protagonist of the story, a young boy, has given up participating in local rituals after his conversion to Christianity. Such masks are worn by ritual experts for healing and by initiates and initiators for initiation rites and funerary rituals, information that Sheppard himself clearly noted elsewhere. These functions, however, conflict with the assumption of Christian values and authority, so Sheppard emphasizes in his story that the boy rejects the mask. The image of the mask however has a story to tell. As ethnographic document the mask is interesting in that it is clearly Kete (the ethnic group at Luebo), but its general form, when compared with other Kete masks of its type, hints at the intense borrowing of masks and masking forms that existed among the neighboring groups on the border of the Kuba region. According to oral history, the Kete are made up of several populations and the Kuba took from them their artistic traditions although there is no material evidence to document this. In the capture of this image, Sheppard operates on two levels. He uses the image to proselytize the efficacy of Christianity among pagan peoples. In the process, he documents an important example of a major masking style for future scholarship.


Another interesting photograph in the Sheppard Collection and Sheppard’s papers at Hampton University records a group of dancing men that he identifies as Batetela. This elegant image belies the fact that the Batetela were constantly at war with their neighbors and, in 1891, the year after Sheppard arrived in the Kasai, they turned against Arab slavers with the help of the Belgians. Sheppard notes in his writings that the missionaries feared the Batetela :

“After many months of building, preaching and teaching, trouble came to the little band. The Batetela soldiers, far away in the Lulua country, revolted, killing their Belgian officers and threatened to come to Luebo and fight the missionaries. Earnest prayers were offered by the missionaries and Christian natives. God changed the purpose of the fighters and sent them in a different direction [57][57] W. H. Sheppard, Blazing the African Trail, p. ...”.

The Batetela caused a great deal of trouble for the Belgians until defeated in 1910, the year that Sheppard left the Kasai forever [58][58] M. Felix (1987 : 174-175).. Taking this captivating image, probably in 1893 or 1894, may not have been an easy task for Sheppard and probably involved all his negotiating skills. It shows his clear affinity for the environment around him even in the midst of threatening violence and chaos.


The single most important object that came into Sheppard’s possession was a large knife with an iron blade and a broken pommel decorated with copper wire [59][59] See illustration 28 in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993.... This knife was given to Sheppard by Maxamalenge to thank him for saving his life. The old king had died and a different dynasty ruled the Kuba that sought to force Maxamalenge, the old nyim’s favorite son, to take the poison oracle. Sheppard gave the prince, whom he had befriended since 1892, shelter at Ibanj earning the ire of the Kuba leadership and the eventual destruction of the mission in 1904. The mission was rebuilt but never to its former glory.


The accession notes concerning this royal ceremonial sword were dictated by Sheppard. The accession date is March 26, 1915. The notes relate that the sword had been handed down through the reign of many Lukengas and that :

“Once a year, thousands from associated tribes gather to report to Lukenga [60][60] Lukenga is a generic honorific title as well as a name..... Daily for 2 weeks they assemble in [the] public square for speeches, singing and dancing. The Lukenga sits high in his pavilion (sic) surrounded by his family and court. The master of ceremonies lays this long knife before a chief, who picks it up, steps into the circle, salutes the king with the knife and gives his dance as the drums beat and the long ivory horns blow. After this he makes his report.

After the death of the old Lukenga (sic), his successor, of another dynasty, killed as many as possible of the old reigning family and thro’ the influence of the Belgians did away with this annual meeting. Maxamalenge fled the capitol and took refuge with the missionaries at Ibanj. This knife was his thank[s] offering for hospitality received. Dr Sheppard’s son is named for this man [61][61] Sheppard’s notes on the collection, catalogue number...”.

The sword that Maxamalinge gave to Sheppard is the mbombaam sword that only the Bushoong nyim (Kuba king) has the right to wear and only in the most important ceremonies. Christopher Springs describes the place of this sword in Kuba weaponry and culture :

“It is the largest of all Kuba weapons having a gradually tapering point and blade decorated with longitudinal grooves. The long, tubular hilt is elaborately carved and inlaid with copper. Together with the lance mbwoom ambady, the mbombaam is an essential part of the royal costume bwaantshy, a massive agglomeration of objects which might best be described as a lexicon of Kuba symbolism associated with the person of the nyim[62][62] C. Spring (1993 : 88). Of the significance of the...”.

In Kuba rituals of kingship all weapons of iron are shunned save for the mbombaam. This may be because of the “ambiguous symbolic relationship between women and metal”. The process of smelting “is perceived in terms of intercourse and giving birth”. The king in his person is thus seen as allied to the fertility of the land and therefore of his people. The king as blacksmith in myth gives birth to the cultural world as women give birth to the natural world [63][63] C. Spring (1993 : 90).. The mbombaam that Sheppard was given is decorated with the same spiral designs found on the oldest textiles, corroborating proof of its significant age. As oral history recorded the sword had been handed down through the reign of many Lukengas, this ritual weapon given to Sheppard could date from a time when the power of the Kuba kingdom reached its peak in the mid 18th century [64][64] The Kuba kingdom became important under Syaam aMbuul....


How significant, then, was it for such an important ritual object to be placed in Shepppard’s hands ? The Belgians had put an end to the rituals at the capital that reified the sacred and political authority of the nyim (King), rituals in which the mbombaam had been central. In this context, Maxamalenge’s gesture of thanks becomes a poetic act. He transfers a sacred object of kingship to Sheppard, the iconoclast, who by force of his will had established a base of power among the Kuba in delicate balance with the interests of his church against the injustice of the Belgians. It was a moment signaling the twilight descending upon the Kuba Kingdom. The days of glory were over. They would soon be over for Sheppard. His singular adventure was about to come to an end and these two men, a Black American and a Black African had participated in one of the great stories of their time.


In the year 2000, at the turn of another century, almost one hundred years after this event, King Kot aMbweeky III, whose namesake was the nyim who received Sheppard as he first entered the capital of the kingdom, visited Hampton University Museum. The object in which he was most interested and that he most treasured was the mbombaam sword that Maxamalenge had given to Sheppard [65][65] Mary Lou Hultgren, Curator of Collections at Hampton.... This arc of history, in which he would be an actor, was unknown to Sheppard as he stood looking for the first time upon the verdant abundance of the Kuba kingdom with its broad streets and woven houses. After his sojourn in the Kasai was over, he returned to America, to a clamoring lecture circuit where he could recount his singular adventure. He also returned to a nation where in daily life he had to hide who he was, a man of uncommon qualities, but he could display and discuss the treasures that he had been gifted and chosen. He could tell about and show the world the greatness of an African people.


Sheppard did not falter in regret or sorrow for what was lost. He took care of his family and contributed to the betterment of his last parish community in Louisville, Kentucky with his typical humor and energy. He ended his days at the age of sixty-two from a stroke that invalided him for a year and that was most likely brought on by the numerous bouts of malaria he had experienced in the field. He was able all his life to cope with extreme contradictions – slavery versus freedom, the brutality of Leopold’s Congo versus the rights of the Congolese, being a Black man in a world under White men’s control – and maintain his equilibrium. In a sense, Sheppard “went native” in the Congo identifying with Africans, but he held onto his identity. He was a doer, a Black man who met two presidents, who lectured to an august body of his fellows at Exeter Hall in London. He was a man of deep compassion and great courage, and he sinned in the letter of his creed as a man immersed in a different world that he had come to respect and enjoy.


Sheppard was the product of an historical process in which Blacks in the Americas sought to forge an identity apart from the Western ideology of race that supported slavery, and to establish a political and economic base from which that could be made a reality. This generation saw Blacks in the Americas and Africa allied in a battle against spiritual and physical annihilation. The period of Reconstruction after The Civil War was one of great promise for a population whose condition impacted Blacks beyond continental America. In that moment of expectation, an extraordinary generation born slave and free went out to act upon the world stage. Their ideas and movements would reverberate to the mid-twentieth century helping to shape the discourse for civil rights in America and for independence in Africa. The missionary William Henry Sheppard, the “Black Livingstone of Africa”, was one of that generation’s most gifted protagonists.


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    • Afro-American Presbyterian Charlotte, North Carolina, June 17, 1909, “Letter from Africa”, Ibanj-Kasai District Congo Ind. State, W.C. Africa, March 29, 1909.
    • February 17, 1910, “In the Dark Continent”. Account of the trial of Sheppard and Morrison for libel against the Kasai Rubber Company.
    • Amsterdam News New York, New York, March 13, 1911 (?), “Shepard (sic) is Here, Congo Hero Arrested as Libeler of King Leopold, Discovered Great Bakubas, Mighty Missionary and Hunter of the Congo, Who Freed the Most Advanced Tribe in Africa from the Tyranny of Belgium, and Himself Saved by U. S. Government, Sees Hope for Africa”.
    • The Central Presbyterian Monteagle Chautauqua, Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, ca. 1906, “A Missionary Heroine” from Rev. D. C. Hankin, in “The Independent”. Report on a talk given by Mrs. Lucy Gantt Sheppard.
    • Herald (?) (no location), October 17, 1909. “American Negro Hero of Congo, One of Missionaries Acquitted of Libelling (sic) Belgians is Virginian and Son of a Slave, Was First to Inform World of Congo Abuses.”
    • Louisville Courier Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, October 10, 1904, “Many Experiences of Missionaries to African Related : The Rev. W.H. Sheppard, a Negro, Addresses Big congregation at Second Presbyterian Church”.
    • Nashville American Nashville, Tennessee, March 29, 1905, “Congo Missionary, Colored Woman Who Has Served Many Years There to Lecture.” (Lecture by Mrs. Lucy Gantt Sheppard)
    • Richmond Planet, Richmond, Virginia, January 8, 1910, “The Planet in Africa, Little Heathen Children Inspecting It.”
    • Tuskegee Student Tuskegee, Alabama. Speech made at the Central Presbyterian Church, Montgomery Alabama, “In the Heart of Africa, Most Interesting and Informing Lecture”, April 5, 1905.
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    • Boston, Massachusetts, “A Colored F. R. G. S. [sic Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society], Discoverer of a Race Who Perhaps Civilized Egypt, ‘Behold a Man of Ethiopia !’ – A Product of Tuscaloosa, becomes One of the Most Eminent Men in the South”, probably 1893
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    • Austin Ramona, “The Buffalo and the Elephant : Some Thoughts on a Masquerade of the Kuba” in Nature, Belief and Ritual : Explorations in the Arts of Africa at The Dallas Museum of Art, 2001, unpublished manuscript.
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    • Sheppard William H., Notes on the Sheppard Collection, Hampton University Museum, 1911 and 1915.
  • Web Sources :



Ramona Austin is an Art historian who has done extensive research among the Kongo peoples, preceded by archival work at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium). She has seventeen years of experience in museums as Associate Curator for African art at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Margaret Mc Dermott Associate Curator for African art at the Dallas Museum of Art, and most recently as the Director of the Hampton University and Archives. Currently she is President of the Edo Group, LLC consulting in museums and educational and arts organizations.


George Shepperson (1968 : 502).


I wish to thank Donzella Maupin, Assistant Archivist of the Hampton University Archives, and Mary Lou Hultgren, Curator of Collections and recently appointed Director of the Hampton University Museum and Archives, for assisting me with archival resources on William Henry Sheppard. I am also thankful for their thoughtful responses to my inquiries. I want to also thank William Bynum, the Acting Deputy Director of The Presbyterian Historical Society at Montreat, North Carolina, for all of his patient help.


Ibid., p. 492.


W. E. B. Du Bois (1999 [1903] : 5, note 1).


L.G. Shepperson (1968 : 503-504) writes, “Although Du Bois was present at this Conference and became chairman of its ‘Committee on Address to the Nations of the World’, it was started by H. Sylvester Williams, a West Indian barrister, and a moving spirit was Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a neglected figure of Negro American history and a believer in the inevitability of a ‘Negro Cecil Rhodes’. The Conference sent a memorial to Queen Victoria protesting against the treatment of Africans in South Africa and Rhodesia and succeeded in eliciting from Joseph Chamberlain a pledge that ‘Her Majesty’s Government will not overlook the interests and welfare of the native races’”.


Sheppard was in contact with the Kuba people for twenty years, knew their language fluently and initially spent four months at the capital at Mushenge in 1892. Torday, by contrast, visited the capital sixteen years later in 1908 and Frobenius collected in the region between July 1905 and May 1906. Both men spent weeks among the Kuba compared to Sheppard’s years. In John Mack’s discussion of Torday’s relation with the nyim (King) Kot aPe and his court he discusses Torday’s antipathy for the Presbyterian Missionaries, although it is Morrison (who was at Luebo), not Sheppard (who was closer at Ibanj), who is mentioned. Mack’s discussion is important for the role and capabilities of Torday that it ascribes to him in relation to his work among the Kuba. One could say that these attributes are the same that Sheppard possessed and that served him well in an earlier period and for a longer duration of time. The year mentioned in the letters is 1908, a year of Kuba dynastic troubles. It 1904 Sheppard played a part in the events surrounding succession to the throne by protecting the favorite son of the former nyim from other royal aspirants, an act that cost the Ibanj mission dearly. This is discussed later in this paper. See J. Mack, (1990 : 68-69).


P. Kennedy, (2002 : 200). Hampton University Archives in the past year alone has received a significant number of requests for information on Sheppard including doctorates in progress and pending publications. Conversation with Donzella Maupin, Acting Archivist, Hampton University Archives, Summer 2004.


The following books about Sheppard give an account of his time in Africa : W. Phipps, The Sheppard’s and Lapsley : Pioneer Presbyterians in the Congo (1991), and William Sheppard : Congo’s African American Livingstone, (2002), P. Kennedy, Black Livingstone : A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (2002). Read also A. Horchschild’s discussion of Sheppard in King Leopold’s Ghost : A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998).


Sheppard accepted his Fellowship and spoke at Exeter Hall in London in 1893 during which he showed off Kuba artwork. The lake he discovered was named Lake Sheppard in his honor. Returning to America he visited President Grover Cleveland presenting him with a Kuba rug (probably a large mat ?) and sent the rest of the collection to Hampton University beginning its Kuba collection. See P. Kennedy (2002 : 108-110).


Images of Sheppard and his family and Ibanj can be found in the Sheppard Collection in the Hampton University Archives, Hampton Virginia. “Our home at Ibanji” c. 1897 is published as figure 2 in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993) ; a postcard picture of the “Lapsley Memorial Chapel, Built by the Natives Congo, Central”, a church laid out by A.T. Edmiston, can be found in the Sheppard Collection, Hampton University Archives and an original photo print of this image can be found at the Presbyterian Historical Archives in Montreat, North Carolina ; William Phipps (1991) published an image taken by Sheppard, probably at the Kuba capitol, of Prince Maxamalenge and his wife, that is also in the Presbyterian Historical Society at Montreat, NC ; and, an unposed image titled “Batetela Dancing” from 1893 or 1894 that was also taken by Sheppard resides in his collection at Hampton University Archives.


The derogatory image of Blacks in the United States developed exponentially from the birth of the minstrel show in the 1840s to countless images used in advertisements, on postcards, as toys, in the new medium of film and the like. These images became the norm by 1900 when Sheppard was a decade in the field and the first Pan-African Congress was held in London. Such images of him as a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and a 1905 image of Sheppard with his family (figs. 9a and b), taken when he was on furlough to raise funds, were highly significant and charged images for the audiences of the day. Consciously aesthetic photographs of non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant Hamptonians – Black, Native American, Eastern European, African and Asian – were meant to counter racist, cultural, and political propaganda against non-Whites. The Hampton Album by Frances Benjamin Johnston, the images of Portia by Richard Leigh Minor, the works by The Camera Club are all remarkable documentation of the institution, but also a concerted effort to present imagery in direct contradistinction to the prevailing racially derogatory depiction of Blacks. Hampton even produced a now lost film rebuttal to the racially defamatory Birth of a Nation. J. N. Pieterse (1991), is an excellent overview of this American popular visual history.


M. Drimmer, (1968 : 491-496).


H. Cruse (1967 : 42).


M. Drimmer (1968 : 492).


Ibid. p. 492.


Howard was established in 1867 by an Act of Congress as a private university.


G. Shepperson, “Notes…”, p. 494.


W.E.B. Du Bois (1970 : 665).


W.E.B. Du Bois (1970 : 665) ; G. Shepperson (1968 : 509-510).


“Hampton’s Girdle Around the World”, published in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993).


K. L. Schall (1977 : 120).


R. F. Engs (1999 : 102).


W.E.B. Du Bois (1970 : 638-702).


Ibid. p. 631.


W. Phipps (2002 : 9-10).


Sheppard was not permitted as a Black man the authority of going alone to the Congo without the supervision of a White missionary. The notion of racial inferiority went beyond the White southerners of the Congo Presbyterian Mission board. On the way to the Congo, Sheppard and Lapsley, with introductions from Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan and Henry Shelton Sanford, stopped in Washington to meet President Benjamin Harrison and in Brussels to meet King Leopold. As a Black man Sheppard was not allowed to attend these meetings. See A. Hochschild (1998 : 153).


Ibid. p. 179.


W. Phipps (1991 : 27).


J. G. Sendecor, and Dr J. Little (before 1898).


G. Shepperson, (1968 : 495).


A. Locke, (1925 : 631-634).


Both images can be found in the Hampton University Archives, The Camera Club Collection and The Sheppard Collection, respectively.


B. T. Washington (1906 : 36). In the same issue, the editor of The Kasai Herald, H.P. Hawkins writes on p. 27 : “Not loosing sight of the fact that our mission is a spiritual one, we believe a little more attention given to this phase of service, will greatly aid in fallowing the soil out of which the spiritual harvest is to spring. For industry and thrift in things material, means much to that people when they will have espoused things spiritual. We do not go so far as some have gone upon this subject in the advocacy of what is called “Industrial Missionary” as a class apart from those who are the bearers of the gospel message, but every missionary might contribute in connection with his regular work, something along these lines in the way of instruction, for in our heathen land they all are Master of Arts in the field of industry.”


T. F. Gossett (1965 : 285) writes : “But what is noticeable is that American thought of the period 1889-1920 generally lacks any perception of the Negro as a human being with potentialities for improvement. Most of the people who wrote about Negroes were firmly in the grip of the idea that intelligence and temperament are racially determined and unalterable”. Against this ubiquitous ideology that was proposed implacably from pulpit to popular culture to discriminatory legislation, it can be understood why the discourse among Blacks of Sheppard’s era should be so dichotomized. What is striking is the uniform insistence for full participation in the American democratic ideal despite this ideological onslaught.


P. Kennedy (2002 : 151-152).


Ibid., p. 153. Kennedy speaks of an archival photo from Ibanj of himself with an honor guard of warriors on which Sheppard has labeled himself as “the chief of Ibaanc”.


M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 9) ; and P. Kennedy (2002 : 88-89).


E. Torday (1925, frontispiece and top illustrations of four titled “Motherhood” opposite page 168). The buffalo coiffure on masks of the Kuba and other Kasai peoples is discussed by R. Austin in “The Buffalo and the Elephant : Some Thoughts on the Mukyeem Masquerade of the Kuba” in Nature, Belief and Ritual : Explorations in the Arts of Africa at The Dallas Museum of Art, 2001, unpublished manuscript.


P. Kennedy (2002 : 190-191).


Ibid., p. 89 as reincarnated king, and p. 178-180, on relations and charges of sexual misconduct.


W.H. Sheppard, “A Congo Rocking Chair”, The Kasai Herald, July 1906, No.3.


R.F. Engs (1999 : 80) points out that “industry” did not have the same connotation at the inception of Hampton. The word came to be weighted with the trappings of capital enterprise by the turn of the century. Sheppard meant the word in the missionary sense, as moral uplift, of which there are still remnants in Sheppard’s explanation.


The Kasai Herald, 1906, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 27.


P. Kennedy (2002 : 159).


Ibid., p. 200.


M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 24-25) ; and G. Shepperson, “Notes…” (1968 : 512) for a discussion of influences between Africans and African Americans on nationalist ideological formation among Blacks on both continents.


Hampton University Archives. Published as figure 3 in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993).


The Kasai Herald, July 1906, No. 3, p. 29.


P. Kennedy (2002 : 151-152).


Ibid., p. 113 and 118.


“Many trips were made into the interior, visiting scores of towns, explaining to the natives the purpose of their [the missionaries’] presence in their midst”. W.H. Sheppard, Blazing the African Trail, p. 11.


See the essay by M.L. Hultgren and J. Zeidler (1993 : 13-26) for a history on the collection made by Sheppard for Hampton upon General Armstrong’s request.


From notes by W.H. Sheppard on the Sheppard Collection, Hampton University Museum collection Records, unpublished, 1911 and 1915. M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993, see illustration 67 and detail in addition to the quote from Sheppard on p. 100). This piece was estimated at twice the age of the Lukenga who gave it to Sheppard between 1892 and 1896. When Sheppard met the Lukenga he was estimated to be about 73 years old. This would put the date of manufacture conservatively at circa 1750.


D. Binkley and P. Darish, “Introductory Catalogue Statements”, in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 93).


W. Phipps (1991). This image is in the archives of both Hampton University and The Presbyterian Historical Society at Montreat.


After returning from Africa, Sheppard wrote a series of four stories for children. This image of a Kete helmet mask was used to illustrate “A Young Hunter” about a boy named Benwenya. Sheppard’s caption for this photograph reads : “The Witch Doctor in Whom Benwenya Once Believed”. From True African Stories, “A Young Hunter”, Louisville, Kentucky, n.d. [probably early 1920s].


W. H. Sheppard, Blazing the African Trail, p. 10-11.


M. Felix (1987 : 174-175).


See illustration 28 in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 61).


Lukenga is a generic honorific title as well as a name. As an honorific appellation it is not the actual name of the king or Nyim as he is formally titled. During Sheppard’s time in the Kasai there were nine Nyim, each with a distinct name. This was due to the struggle over the successor to Kot aMbweeky aMileng when variously five Nyims asserted authority in rapid succession in 1900. It was these factions that drove Prince Maxamalenge with the threat of assassination to seek refuge at Ibanj with Sheppard. From 1901 to 1902, two more Nyim held the throne before Kot aPe who held it from 1902 until 1919. Go to www. worldstatesmen. org/ Congo-Kinshasa_native. html for a list of the Kuba kings from 1776 to the present day.


Sheppard’s notes on the collection, catalogue number 15.226.


C. Spring (1993 : 88). Of the significance of the copper inlay that is simply called red metal or red iron in many African languages, E.W. Herbert (1984 : 279) writes : “It carries the manifold connotations of blood : sacrifice, execution, war on the one hand ; fertility and vitality on the other. It marks the transition from child to adult, from adult to ancestor. Its presence is frequently a statement of aggressivity, of the power to take life, as in the copper inlay on the Kuba war-knife…” (my italics).


C. Spring (1993 : 90).


The Kuba kingdom became important under Syaam aMbuul aNgoong who ruled from 1625-1649. It peaked in power from the middle of the 18th century until the late 19th century just when Sheppard discovered it as the first westerner to visit the kingdom in 1892. Its collapse was brought by Belgian aggression and domination soon thereafter. See P. Curtin et al. (1978 : 271-272). On the dating of the sword by textile designs see the article by David Binkley and Pat Darrish in M.L. Hultgren et al. (1993 : 59).


Mary Lou Hultgren, Curator of Collections at Hampton University Museum, pers. comm., June 2004.



William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927) est resté comme le “Livingstone noir de l’Afrique”. L’un des missionnaires les plus célèbres de son temps, il fut un ethnographe de talent doué d’une sensibilité pour les cultures qu’il rencontra. Bien qu’internationalement reconnu, de son vivant, pour son combat en faveur des Congolais opprimés, il tomba dans l’oubli, de sa disparition aux années 1960, où sa vie et son itinéraire commencèrent à susciter un nouvel intérêt.
Le présent article ne livre pas une chronologie de W.H. Sheppard au Congo, mais s’attache à la replacer dans le contexte des combats de l’intelligentsia noire américaine de son époque, de l’éducation dite « réformiste » qu’il reçut, de l’œuvre des missionnaires noirs qui, dans un monde dominé par les pouvoirs blancs, prennent le parti des Africains contre la colonisation. Une extraordinaire génération d’hommes et de femmes qui, dans l’ère de la reconstruction après la guerre civile américaine, évoluent dans un contexte international de rapports de forces complexes et changeants.


William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927), who became known as the “Black Livingstone of Africa”, was one of the most famous missionary-explorers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was also a gifted ethnographer who documented with sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation the cultures he encountered. He became an international celebrity championing the human rights of the Congolese and documenting the atrocities of the Congo Free State and the Compagnie du Kasai. Due to his race, his accomplishments fell into obscurity after his death until the 1960s when renewed interest in his story drew scholarly attention. This discussion does not present a chronology of his experiences in the Congo, but places him in the context of the Black intelligentsia of his time and of the education he received that has been characterized reductively as “reformist”. His story is told from his point of view, as a Black man of uncommon gifts and will who operated adroitly in a world of white authority at a critical time in African history. For all of his singular achievements, however, Sheppard must be seen in the context of a community of Black missionaries, sponsored by established and independent churches, who aligned themselves with Africans against colonialism. The product of institutions established during the Reconstruction Era to train freed slaves after the American Civil War, this was an extraordinary generation of men and women who were active in an international context in a complex world of shifting power relationships. William Henry Sheppard was one of this generation’s most gifted protagonists.

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