vol. 6, no. 1 (Fall 2002)
ISSN 1094-902X

 

 

 

 

Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo. By Pagan Kennedy. New York: Viking Press, 2002. Pp. 256. $24.95, cloth.

William Sheppard: Congo's African American Livingstone. By William E. Phipps. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2002. Pp. 224. $22.95, cloth.

"There are armed sentries of chartered trading companies, who force the men and women to spend most of their days and nights in the forests making rubber, and the price they receive is so meager that they cannot live upon it. In the majority of the villages these people have not time to listen to the Gospel story, or give an answer concerning their soul's salvation. Looking upon the changed scene now, one can only join with them in their groans as they must say: "Our burdens are greater than we can bear." 1

In 1907, William Henry Sheppard, an African American southern Presbyterian missionary, publicized the use of terror and extortion by rubber companies in the Belgian Congo. One year later, Sheppard refused to retract his charges when hauled before a colonial judge on charges of libel. Following his acquittal, he returned to America a heroic celebrity and launched an extended lecture tour, headlining newspaper articles even when he shared the stage with such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

Sheppard's fame dissipated as the years of his Congo adventures moved further into the past. After his 1927 death, Sheppard rapidly sank into historical obscurity, occasionally receiving mention in the annals of African American history, often overshadowed in other works by his white co-workers. Now, biographies by Pagan Kennedy and William Phipps seek to re-establish Sheppard's reputation as an intepid explorer, sympathetic observer of African culture, and fighter for Congolese rights.

The two books display several similarities. Both authors have personal histories that intersect indirectly with Sheppard. One of Kennedy's relatives served at the American Presbyterian Congo Mission just one year after Sheppard departed. Phipps, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), grew up in the very church in Waynesboro, Virginia that Sheppard attended as a child. Both authors wisely craft narratives that allow Sheppard's remarkable exploits to speak for themselves, quoting generously from Sheppard's own writings. They detail Sheppard's persistent interest in African missions that eventually persuaded the southern Presbyterian church -- a denomination rapidly moving towards more rigid forms of segregation and possessing a miniscule number of African American members -- to send him to the Congo in 1890. They describe Sheppard's harrowing journey to the capital of the Kuba kingdom. Sheppard was the first foreigner to reach the Kuba capital, and his vivid descriptions of Kuba culture and art provide a rare view of native people largely immune from western contact. Phipps and Kennedy also carefully reconstruct the story of Sheppard's growing realization of the violent means the Belgian state was using to force native peoples to harvest obscene amounts of rubber, and they describe the publicity campaign he and Morrison waged against Belgian atrocities.

There are also at least two important differences between these two biographies of William Sheppard. Phipps' book is the more carefully researched, with meticulous footnotes and a narrative that adheres carefully to the documentary evidence. For example, Phipps has unearthed documents relating to Sheppard's ignominious resignation from the Congo mission (he confessed to several adulterous affairs) that were unknown several years ago. Phipps also provides a broader historical context that illuminates the Kasai region of the Congo, race relations within the southern Presbyterian church, and the history of Hampton Institute (now Hampton College).

Kennedy, who has made her reputation as a novelist, does not neglect the historical record, but she enlivens her narrative with considerable speculation into the emotions and motivations of Sheppard and other figures. Since Sheppard's writings rarely reveal his own feelings about a host of tantalizing topics -- such as American race relations or his religious beliefs -- Kennedy invites the reader to suggestively explore several ultimately unanswerable questions. For the historian, both approaches present both promise and pitfalls. Kennedy's narrative emerges at the more lively, but the amount of speculation leaves the reader somewhat uncertain. That uncertainly, however, may be fitting for a figure like Sheppard, who tiptoed along the borderlands of racial norms on two continents. "Who was he," asks Kennedy, "under all the different masks and costumes?" Similarly, Kennedy probes the thoughts of Sheppard's wife, Lucy Gantt Sheppard, a brave and accomplished missionary and educator who emerges as a long-suffering yet determined and resourceful woman. One easily sympathizes with Kennedy's unfulfilled desire to know more about the Sheppards' own reactions to the racial and religious cauldrons in which they lived.

Both authors present Sheppard as an enlightened missionary who preferred exhibiting compassion and admiration for Africans rather than threatening them with hellfire. Kennedy concludes that "he was far more interested in saving bodies than souls." (43) While Sheppard himself certainly loved styling himself as the quintessential explorer, Kennedy goes too far in neglecting his religious sensibilities. Sheppard was hardly single-minded in his attempts to evangelize Africans, but he did preach the Gospel, translated hymns, and founded a thriving church. Phipps, by contrast, notes Sheppard's comfort in psalms, told the villages he visited "the new and wonderful story of Jesus," and found solace in prayer. (75)

The titles of the two books liken William Sheppard to an African American Livingstone. As Phipps mentions, the two explorers both came from "lowly beginnings," intended to "bring Christianity to new regions of Africa," and "had strong faith in the capabilities of Africans." (209) Phipps trenchantly observes a crucial difference, however, in the fact that Livingstone's fame grew in the decades following his death, while Sheppard "has been virtually unknown in America." (214) Both authors hope that their books will help correct this historical imbalance. From "the perspective of the twenty-first century," contends Phipps, "Sheppard can be seen as more influential than Stanley and at least on a par with Livingstone." (216)

Why is Sheppard, given his varied and impressive accomplishments, been so long in receiving his historiographical due? Several reasons help explain his relative obscurity. First, as both Phipps and Kennedy discuss, Sheppard had to resign from the Congo mission at the height of his success when one of his co-workers confronted him about several affairs and an illegitimate child. Although church bodies handled the matter confidentially, Sheppard's missionary career ended prematurely, and it is possible that the ignominious ending to his missionary years dented his reputation in official Presbyterian circles. Second, Sheppard was one of only a few thousand African American southern Presbyterians. During his years in the Congo, the church established segregated presbyteries, further marginalizing the few black voices within the church. Southern Presbyterians stopped sending black missionaries to the Congo. Earlier generations of Presbyterian historians tended to focus on the accomplishments of Sheppard's white co-workers, while historians of African American religion have paid comparatively little attention to the tiny black constituencies that remained within overwhelmingly white Protestant churches.

Finally, although Sheppard bravely stood up to the Belgian rubber companies and state officials in the Congo, he carefully and deferentially observed the "etiquette" of southern race relations both before and after his Congo exploits. Both authors could have spent more time exploring Sheppard's fourteen years of work in the paternalistic Louisville ministry of John Little, an important if not as exciting segment of Sheppard's career. Unlike his fellow Presbyterian Francis Grimke, for instance, Sheppard made no explicit contribution to the struggle for racial justice and equality in this country. As historian Louis Harlan said of Booker T. Washington, William Sheppard's handling of American race relations was probably "too compromising and unheroic to win him a place in the … pantheon."2 Yet his heroism in the Belgian Congo certainly places Sheppard in the pantheon of African American missionaries, of all missionaries, in colonial Africa.

1. Reprinted in: "William Sheppard: Christian Fighter for African Rights," Southern Workman 39 (Jan. 1910), 8-9. Italics Sheppard's.

2. Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), vii.

 

John Geoffrey Turner, University of Notre Dame


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