by Adib Rashad ~
From the founding of Liberia in 1821 until the 1920s, the major influence of
Black Americans on Africa came from Black missionaries. The Colonization
movement gave birth to the Black missionary tradition and to the theory of
"providential design," which taught that Black slaves were brought to the
United States and Christianized and educated so that they might be able to
send their children back to redeem Africa.
Missionaries seemed to believe that Blacks could withstand the African
climate and resist the diseases of Africa better than Caucasians.
Furthermore, evangelical clergymen believed that Africans could be converted
more easily by Black than Caucasian missionaries.
Paradoxically, the Black missionary movement was almost always intermixed
with a spirit of Pan-Africanism. Africa presented Black Americans with a
chance to emigrate, to prosper, to reconnect with their African heritage, and
to Christianize their African brothers and sisters; it also presented them
with an opportunity to assist Africans to rise economically.
Additionally, Black Americans believed it was God's design that educated
Blacks should return to Africa and develop it for the future. Bishop Henry
McNeal Turner and his newspaper, "Voice of The People," continually preached
this message of "providential design" and emigrationism:
The Negro race has as much chance in the United States ... of being a man
... as a frog has in a snake den... Emigrate and gradually return to the land of
our ancestors... The Negro was brought here in the providence of God to
learn obedience, to work, to sing, to pray, to preach, to acquire education ...
and imbibe the principles of civilization as a whole, and then to return to
Africa, the land of his fathers, and bring her his millions.
After the American Baptists, the next major American missionary effort in
Africa--particularly the Congo--was undertaken by the Southern Presbyterian
Church; initiated by Reverend William H. Sheppard. Sheppard, a native of
Virginia and a graduate of Hampton Institute and Tuscaloosa Theological
Institute, had aspired from childhood to be a missionary to Africa. At the
age of twenty-three he was eager to serve in Africa, but the church's
leadership believed Blacks were incapable of learning foreign languages,
insisted that he be accompanied by a Caucasian cleric. Sheppard waited for
two years; in the interim, he served as a minister in Atlanta, where he
acquired a reputation for intelligence, bravery, and vigor.
Finally, the church sent Reverend Samuel Lapsley, son of Alabama
slaveholders, to accompany Sheppard to the Congo Free State. This was an
area that was unpenetrated by Christianity, and was under the personal rule
of Belgium's King Leopold II.
Although one was the descendant of slaves and the other of slave owners, the
historical records indicate that they hit it off well.
On April 18, 1891, the two missionaries arrived at the village of Luebo,
where they founded their mission; they bought nine acres of land from a local
tribe with $1.60 worth of cowrie shells and brass wire. Once they completed
their preparations, the two young missionaries headed up the Kasai River to
Samuel Lapsley's letters to the United States always rang with the utmost of
respect and admiration for William Sheppard. He pointed out that the tribes
in the Congo were very respectful of Sheppard because of his "bright and even
temper," his "unusual graces," and "strong points of character." Lapsley
continually "thanked God for Sheppard's presence."
Sheppard was the first Black American missionary in the Congo. He mostly
wrote of the Africans he encountered with reverence and high regard.
However, he occasionally echoed the prevailing condescension of white
missionaries regarding the so-called "heathenism" of Africa. He, on the
other hand, was more mindful and acceptable of the Africans as total human
beings. He saw the Congolese as "my people" and eagerly absorbed his
surroundings. He wrote this, "We immediately began to study the local
language by pointing at objects and writing down the names the villagers
gave us." He wrote at another time, "I always wanted to live in Africa, I felt I
would be happy, and so I am."
Sheppard was a true Christian evangelist and remained one for the twenty
years he worked in Africa, and for the duration of his life. He not only
loved his assignment, but also the joy of being in Africa with his "people."
In early 1892, Lapsley had to go to Boma, the capital, on mission business,
and left Sheppard alone for several months on the Kasai. Lapsley never
returned; he died of bilious hematuric fever. The Southern Presbyterians
were embarrassed to find themselves with a Black man in DE facto command of
their new Congo mission, dispatched more white Presbyterians to the Congo.
By the time they arrived, Sheppard had had several years
experience in the territory, and had become, according to a Belgian
trader, very "popular among the BaKuba whose language he alone speaks of all
As indicated, the area where Reverend Sheppard was working bordered on the
homeland of the Kuba people. The Kuba were/are among Africa's greatest
artists, working in masks, sculpture, textiles, and elaborately carved
Sheppard's collection of Kuba art, much of which ended up at his alma mater
in Virginia, was the first significant one acquired by an outsider.
Sheppard was always candid to state when some tribal practice--such as human
sacrifice--appalled him; however, he always displayed an empathetic,
respectful interest in African customs. He was deeply respectful of the
Kuba, whom he said, "Make one feel that he has again entered a land of
civilization... Perhaps they got their civilization from the Egyptians--or
the Egyptians got theirs from the BaKuba!"
Sheppard was excited when he saw a Kuba ceremonial cup for drinking palm
wine; carved on it was a face with features closely resembling those on
ancient Egyptian artifacts. "The cup is made of mahogany," he wrote, "and
the face on it seems to verify their tradition that many, many years ago
they came from a faraway land."
The Kuba Kingdom had been protected from slave-raiders primarily because of
its location, which was deep in the Congo's interior. The other factor was
their persistence on keeping outsiders at a distance. They cherished their
isolation. Belgian traders had been trying for more than a decade to gain
entry to the Kuba Kingdom; they had been repeatedly rebuffed. The gifts
they sent to the king were always returned.
In 1892, Sheppard became the first foreigner to reach the town of Ifuca,
seat of the court of the Kuba king, Kot aMbweeky II. The king had repeatedly
threatened to decapitate anyone who helped strangers intrude into his land;
thus no one dared to give Sheppard directions. For weeks Sheppard secretly
followed an ivory caravan heading for the capital, until the king learned of
his approach and sent his son, Toen-Zaide, to find and kill the missionary
and everyone who had assisted him. Once captured, Sheppard spoke the Kuba
language with such skill that even the king was impressed. The Kuba elders
decided that Sheppard was a reincarnated spirit. Furthermore, they announced
that they knew who he was: Bobe MeKabe, a former king. Sheppard could not
convince them otherwise.
Sheppard's visit to the Kuba Kingdom was the highlight of his life, and it
provided a wealth of information for later scholars.
The Kuba had one of Central Africa's most sophisticated political systems.
Sheppard remained at the Kuba court for four months, and interested in all
he saw, wrote articles on Kuba ancestral rituals, crop yields, court
operatives, to the workings of a royal police force that dealt with thefts and other
Sheppard's acute observations won him election to the Royal Geographic
Society in London.
As time progressed, he became even more attached to the Kuba people, he
wrote, "I grew very fond of the BaKuba..." He continued, "They were the
finest looking race I had seen in Africa, dignified, graceful, courageous,
honest, with an open smiling countenance and really hospitable. Their
knowledge of weaving, embroidery, wood carving and smelting was the highest
in equatorial Africa." The book he later wrote about his experiences in the
Congo was entitled "Presbyterian Pioneers in the Congo." He was a valuable,
first hand look at one of the last great African kingdoms unchanged by
Sheppard, alone, continued evangelizing among the Kuba and neighboring
tribes. I would be remiss by not stating with emphasis that the Kuba were
so happy with their way of life, and their customs; they showed very little
interest in Christianity. They loved Sheppard, but had an aversion toward
Christianity; Sheppard, being a man of principle, did not impose Christianity
on them if they were not interested.
Sheppard returned to the United States in 1894; he recruited four other
Black Christians to the Congo mission, including his new wife. Caucasian clerics,
for the most part, avoided the Congo based on the health factors imparted by
others. It was that small cadre of Black evangelists who sustained the mission.
In 1897 or 1898, the Presbyterian Church sent Reverend William Morrison, a
Caucasian from Virginia, to head the Congo mission despite Sheppard's vast
experience and knowledge. Sheppard would never regain leadership.
Interestingly, Sheppard and Morrison formed an amicable alliance, and this
contributed to the growth of the mission. Williams, and later, Morrison
played a historic role in exposing King Leopold's immense system of
extortion, brutality and murder. In 1876, after years of trying to control
the Congo, Leopold formed the International African Association; in 1885, he
assumed the title of sovereign of the Congo Free State which was the only
European colonial dependency in the hands of a single man rather than a
On the world stage, Leopold managed to maintain his control of the Congo by
feigning patriarchal benevolence.
In actuality, the Congolese were enslaved and forced to collect rubber under
heinous conditions. By 1900 the once proud and prosperous Kuba people had
been reduced to near starvation as Leopold's soldiers forced them to produce
ever greater quantities of rubber at gunpoint and the threat of torture.
Reverend Sheppard described the toll taken on the Kuba with these heart
These great stalwart men and women, who have from time immemorial been free,
cultivating large farms of Indian corn, peas, tobacco, potatoes, trapping
elephants for their ivory tusks and leopards for their skins, who have always
had their own king and government not to be despised, officers of the law
established in every town of the kingdom, these magnificent people, perhaps
about 400,000 in number, have entered a new chapter in the history of their
tribe. Only a few years ago, travelers through this country found them
living in large homes, having from one to four rooms in each house, loving
and living happily with their wives and children, one of the most prosperous
and intelligent of all the African tribe...
But with these last few years how changed they are! Their farms are growing
up in weeds and jungle, their king is practically a slave, their houses now
are mostly only half-built single rooms and are neglected. The streets of
their towns are not clean and well-kept as they once were. Even their
children cry for bread.
Why this change? You have it in a few words. 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
villages these people have not time to listen to the Gospel story, or give
an answer concerning their soul's salvation.
Sheppard's story was published in January 1908.
Sheppard wrote a number of articles about the slaughter of the Kuba and
other neighboring tribes. In a church report, he described one massacre of eighty
to a hundred villagers.
Leopold's "African" raiders had cut off ninety-one right hands to prove to
white rubber bosses that punishment had been meted out to the insolent and
slothful. This African (Congolese) holocaust killed about twelve million
people. In the mean time, Leopold had grown extremely rich from his slave
empire while maintaining the facade that he was bringing benevolence and
civilization to the savage Congolese.
Sheppard was consistent, along with Morrison, to expose this blatant fiction.
Sheppard's articles about severed hands being smoked over a fire had been
one of the most widely quoted pieces of testimony about the Congo. His
eyewitness account sparked indignation in the United States Congress and the
British Parliament. He was cited by almost every American reformer, Black
and Caucasian. Mark Twain, an active opponent of slave labor in the Congo,
paraphrased Sheppard's account of the massacres in "King Leopold's
Soliloquy," an imaginary monologue by Leopold.
Sheppard and Morrison were continual thorns in the side of Leopold.
Sheppard was so adamant in his opposition to Leopold that Leopold's rubber company
sued him in a Congo court demanding 30,000 Belgian francs for alleged libel.
Sheppard declared that if the judge ruled against him, he would "go to prison
rather than pay the fine."
Because of Sheppard's Christian consciousness and his African
humanitarianism, world opinion came to his aid, in the end the court
The trial made sensational news in the United States. Under the headlines
"American Negro Hero of Congo and First to Inform World of Congo Abuses,"
the Boston Herald wrote, "Dr. Sheppard has not only stood before kings, but he
has also stood against them. In pursuit of his mission of serving his race
in its native land, this son of a slave ... has dared to withstand all the
power of Leopold."
The notoriety of the case and Sheppard's articles contributed to unending
pressures that forced Leopold in 1908 to relinquish the colony over to the
Belgian government, ending some of the worst human rights and human abuses
of that time.
Sheppard returned to the United States and became an honored member of the
Black community. He shared speaking platforms with Booker T. Washington and
W. E. B. DuBois; however, his greatest legacy remained in Africa and his
contribution to the downfall of Leopold.
Reverend William Sheppard was a man history should not overlook or neglect.
He died at the age of sixty-two, suffering from recurring bouts of malaria.
In 1918, eight years after he left the Congo, the mission he helped found at
Luebo, with some 1,700 members, became one of the largest Presbyterian
churches in the world.
Reverend Sheppard and his wife lost two daughters to malaria in the Congo.
Sheppard had an affair with a Congolese woman and from that union a son was
born; the son succeeded him in his mission.
The Kuba people did resist the Belgians and their African imps, but were
slaughtered by the thousands.
George Washington Williams was the first Black American to write and speak
about the atrocities in the Congo; however, it was Reverend Sheppard who had
the greatest impact because of his first hand experiences.
The United States and Africa A History, By Peter Duignan and L. H. Gann
King Leopold's Ghost, By Adam Hochschild
George Washington Williams, By John Hope Franklin
The American Legacy Magazine. Winter 1999 article by Mike Tidwell, "The
Missionary Who Fought a King."
The Scramble for Africa The White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from
1876 to 1912, By Thomas Pakenham
Introduction to African Civilizations, By John G. Jackson
The World and Africa, By W. E. B. DuBois
Adib Rashad (RashadM@aol.com) is an education consultant, education
program director, author, and historian. He has lived and taught in
West Africa and South East Asia.
This article was previously published by theMarcusGarveyBBS (an entity of TheBlackList)
and TheBlackList at http://lists.topica.com/lists/TheBlackList/read