A Look at the Life and Times of James Edward Shepard

By Larry Rivers
Sepcial to the Outlook

In this gracefully written book, Dr. Reginald K. Ellis, associate professor of History at Florida A&M University, gives us an insightful account of the life, political thought, and overall leadership of James Edward Shepard (1875 to 1949).  He writes, “the life of James Shepard provides a unique interpretation of the role of a Black college president during the Jim Crow era” (4).  This work, then, catalogs the emergence of Shepard by focusing on his childhood, his family connections, and his education.  Born on November 3, 1875 to Reverend Augustus Shepard and Hattie Shepard in Raleigh, North Carolina, Shepard became the first of twelve children to be born to that union.  As a young lad born into a leading southern Black family, Augustus and Hattie stressed the importance of education and Black entrepreneurship.  Due to his father’s standing in the Durham, North Carolina community, the first born enrolled at the preparatory school at Shaw University, and shortly after completed his primary training at Shiloh Institute in Warrenton, North Carolina.  With an eye to business ownership, Shepard  enrolled in the pharmaceutical department of Shaw University, graduating in 1894 at the age of nineteen.  The next year, he married Mrs. Annie Day Smith. Three daughters were born to that union.

With his degree in hand, Shepard broke the color line by becoming the first African American druggist in North Carolina, and the first Black owner of a drug store in Durham. Because Shepard had little business acumen, he left the pharmacy business after two years.  After which, he then secured a position as deputy collector of the US internal revenue service in Raleigh, North Carolina.  This position allowed Shepard to expand his contacts among both Blacks and Whites in North Carolina.  Yet, again, Shepard became dissatisfied with his new position, and felt a calling to become a teacher after listening to the iconic leader of the day, Booker T. Washington, give an electrifying speech on Black education and racial uplift.  Indeed, after Washington’s 1895 Atlantic Exposition Speech endorsing segregation, he became the foremost Black educational leader of Industrial Education in the United States from 1880 to 1915, and one who White conservatives felt most comfortable with, and who overwhelmingly supported his vision for Blacks. With an eye to advancing his race educationally and spiritually, Shepard accepted a position as the field superintendent for the National Sunday School Association from 1905-1909.  This positon opened Shepard’s eyes to the need to educate his people to become self-sustaining citizens.

Shepard used his contacts to make in-roads into securing money to build his first school called the National Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race (NTSCCR) in 1910. This school would mix religion and education, and thusly got the endorsements of President Theodore Roosevelt and Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks, two prominent White men Shepard had met during the time he served as deputy collector of the US Internal Revenue Service.  Shepard knew how to appeal for support for his institution by using the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of his donors to his advantage.  Other supporters and philanthropists like Benjamin Duke, son of Washington Duke, the tobacco tycoon of Durham supported the educator as well.  These men were willing to support the educator’s ventures as long as they were separate from Whites. With a board of trustees taking shape, Shepard’s school for Negroes became a reality.  Unlike Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on industrial education, Shepard focused on both classical arts and vocational education.  While Shepard and Washington thought somewhat differently about the education of Blacks, they interestingly remained life-long friends.  The perception that Shepard placed more emphasis on liberal arts than vocational education, at times, hurt his fundraising efforts.

The young educator wanted to use NTSCCR as an example of advancing the educational progress of Negroes by debunking negative stereotypes of their alleged trifling and wayward ways.  Many times, Shepard had to deal with outright racism from Whites in order to advance his institution.  Much like Washington, he did not speak out against racial violence to the chagrin of many Blacks.  Shepard’s school experienced constant financial challenges.  During an eight-year period from 1915 to 1923, the NTSCCR became the National Training School (NTS) in 1915; and by 1923, it became a part of the state of North Carolina educational system, with the state changing its name to the Durham State Normal School (DSNS) that same year.  Shepard could be proud of the fact that he secured state funds for his school in Durham when there already existed a state supported school for Negroes in Greensboro called North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College (NCATC). By 1925, DSNS became the North Carolina College for Negroes (NCCN). But, unlike NCATC which focused largely on agricultural and industrial education at the time, NCCN sought to educate teachers; and thereby, it became the first predominantly Black college in the United States to receive state support for liberal arts education.

With the school name changed and controlled by the state of North Carolina, Shepard had to be careful when talking about issues of race during the era of Jim Crow.  He had to walk a tightrope concerning race in order to keep Whites and some Blacks pleased with his leadership. Most of the time, Shepard had to walk softly concerning how he would approach hot-button racial issues.  The president knew that any misrepresentation of the racial norms of the day would negatively impact his college financially.  Without state funds, the school would struggle to exist.  Some historians might consider Shepard a racial accommodationist for his political views and decisions.  But not Ellis.  He sees the president as a very complicated man, and one  who should be understood as a pragmatist-a man who did what  he had to do in order for  his institution to survive to serve Negroes.  While Shepard became friends with the NAACP and other Black self-help organizations, he tried to steer clear of racial controversy.  Shepard believed that the best way to advance the Black community was through education and the church.  As a life-long Republican, Shepard believed that Blacks’ involvement in politics should be secondary to their educational and spiritual uplift.  Despite his lackluster voice against racism during segregation, Ellis notes the educator should still be seen as a prominent racial leader during this period.
Some of Shepard’s critics might have seen him different given the Thomas Hocutt and Pauli Murray cases, which showed Shepard’s outright hostility to integration.  Generally speaking, Hocutt and Murray had graduated from NCCN, and sought to be among the first Blacks to integrate the “White” University of North Carolina.  Hocutt wanted to enter the pharmacy school while Murray wanted to enter its Graduate School.  Shepard singlehandedly stopped the integration of the North Carolina higher education system by simply not releasing the transcripts of both Hocutt and Murray.  Without transcripts, they could not attend the University of North Carolina.  Shepard used the Hocott and Murray cases to petition, instead, for professional and graduate schools at NCCN.  Ellis argues that “James E. Shepard placed his uplift strategy of higher education for the Black community in North Carolina over racial advancement through integration” (p. 50). Shepard’s gradualist stance on civil rights matters would be eventually challenged by more radical Blacks in the community.  The educator knew that part of his legacy would be determined by his ability to raise funds to keep his school opened and function.  Despite his accommodationist/pragmatist attitudes, Shepard surprisingly became the Black media’s choice as one of the nation’s foremost Black leaders during the twilight of his life.  Within two years of his death in 1947, Shepard became more public with his criticisms of racism and segregation.

Indeed, Shepard built an impressive legacy as the founder of what is now called North Carolina Central University.  What makes Ellis’s study successful is how he shows Shepard’s astute ability to deal with racism, segregation, lynching, and racial violence in the Jim Crow South.  One dominate theme that resonates throughout this study is Shepard’s strong agency to keep his college opened at all costs.  Perhaps, the lives of other Black college presidents were not much different from that of Shepard in other Southern states during the era of segregation.  We probably will not know for sure until other similar studies are done.  For Ellis, this biography has relevance for the many Black colleges today who continually struggle to offer the quality education many of their students have come to expect despite, at times, insurmountable challenges.  Because of his use of voluminous primary sources and his in-depth research, Ellis’s book will be the go-to biography when examining the life and times of James Edward Shepard for many years to come, and a model for others who seek to write about Black college presidents.

 Larry Eugene Rivers works for the Department of History, Political Science, Geography, and African American Studies at Florida A&M University.
Reginald K. Ellis, Between Washington and Dubois: The Racial Politics of James Edward Shepard
Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 2017. 1-145. $74.95 (Cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5660-9