"Black Livingstone" Blazed Trail in Dark Congo of 1800s

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
March 1, 2002

It was an improbable event at the turn of the 19th century as William Sheppard—billed as the "Black Livingstone"—climbed onto the stage in meeting halls across the United States and electrified packed audiences with tales of his life in Africa.

Sheppard spent two decades in the Belgian Congo as a missionary. His public lectures were designed to raise funds for his sponsor, the Presbyterian Foreign Missions. But his work as an evangelist was far overshadowed by his personal adventures.

He had fended off crocodile attacks and shot hippos to feed starving villagers. Negotiated his way into the forbidden kingdom of the aristocratic Kuba people. Documented the aftermath of a village massacre instigated by the Belgian colonial regime to punish native Congolese who refused to harvest rubber.

At one point in his talk, the lively speaker brandished an executioner's knife that was nearly used on his own neck.

Sheppard was a curiosity because Africa was still the Dark Continent, little penetrated by outsiders. The limited firsthand accounts often described a snarling jungle populated with human and animal demons—a harsh and brutal world that fiction writer Joseph Conrad made famous in Heart of Darkness.

Yet a black man, born at the end of the Civil War, somehow had managed to leapfrog over the racial barriers of the American South to explore a place all but closed to the rest of the world.

"How did this man, born black in Virginia with limited possibilities and in a deeply racist time, dare to dream to be an African explorer?" said Pagan Kennedy, the author of Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo (Viking, 2002).

"There's something very fascinating about his Livingstone-ish wanting to explore," Kennedy said during a recent interview in Boston. "But I was most interested in this part of human nature that sees possibilities and not limitations."

When "No" Won't Do

As a child in Waynesboro, Virginia, Sheppard had heard about Africa and brazenly declared: "When I grow up I shall go there."

Sheppard's father was a barber and church sexton; his mother tended to ladies at a warm springs spa. Even as a small boy, Sheppard supplemented his family's income with odd jobs.

Around the age of 12, he left home to work as a stable boy for a white dentist in Staunton, Virginia. Treated much like a foster son, he learned to read from the family's cast-off books and developed a poise and ease of conversation that would serve him well throughout his life.

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