National Geographic News
Pagan Kennedy, the author of Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (Viking, 2002), first heard about William Sheppard and his colorful life a decade ago from a neighbor who was writing a book in which he made a passing reference to Sheppard.
"I was on an Africa kick in the '90s. A lot was being written about the Rwanda genocide. Through that I got hooked into the Congo, and the story of William Sheppard jumped out at me," Kennedy said.
Kennedy, a 39-year-old writer in Somerville, Massachusetts, said she became "obsessed" with finding out more about the little-known missionary and his heroic life: "It was my strange little project for many years. I spent a couple of years reading books [on Sheppard and the Congo] just for pleasure."
Kennedy tracked down Sheppard's unpublished autobiography at Boston University, but learned that a complete book on Sheppard's life was still to be written. Kennedy saw the need for one but, as a fiction writer and a white woman, she shrank from the prospect of writing it.
Then a quirky coincidence seemed like an omen: When Kennedy described her research project to her familywho, like Sheppard's family, were Presbyterians from Virginiashe was stunned to learn that one of her grandmother's cousins had gone to the Congo soon after Sheppard left.
For years he worked in the mission Sheppard had founded, ministering to the same Kuba people. Later, in his own memoirs, he recounted how the kindness and dedication of Sheppard's black missionary colleagues helped him eradicate his "sin of racial prejudice."
Piecing together the story of Sheppard's life from scattered and incomplete records "was such an exciting project because it came together like a mystery," said Kennedy. "The story of every human being is a mystery. Do we ever really know someone, even someone who's alive? It's really difficult because people change so much."
She found photographs, correspondence, and newspaper clippings in the archives of Hampton University in Virginia and the Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat, North Carolina; family photos and transcripts of interviews that scholars had conducted with Sheppard's son and grand nephew; and a published biography about Sheppard's wife, Lucy.
"I think you have few times in your life when you're truly passionate about what you do. I really loved doing this [book] and it made it hard to return back to the routine of real life," Kennedy said.
"As a fiction writer," she added, "I was humbled because the truth of people is so much stranger than I could have invented. It really stretches you to work with real details of people's lives."
To read an excerpt from the book: Click here
To return to main story: Click here