He always wore a suit and tie. Tipped his hat to the ladies.
In his portrait, he is immaculate — staring dead into the camera, eyes betraying a fierce intellect.
The streets might have called him “clean,” but the best description of James E. Shepard is this: Visionary leader.
“James Shepard had more respect than probably any white citizen in the city,” said Andre’ Vann, coordinator of NCCU Archives.
“Dr. Shepard was ever thinking forward, not toward his day and time, but life after him.”
Shepard died in 1947, almost four decades after starting the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua — the school that would eventually, after several name changes, become N.C. Central University.
Walter Brown, a student at the time Shepard died, and the first person in the nation to receive a Ph.D from an HBCU, wrote Shepard’s obituary.
Brown said it was by Shepard’s grace he enrolled in the first journalism class at NCCU.
He said he went to Charles Ray, former English Department chairman and longtime NCCU professor, and expressed interest in journalism. Ray had to ask Shepard if he could teach the class. That’s how it was back in the day.
Shepard had to make sure the class would be cost-effective, so he said Ray could teach the class if 15 students enrolled. That didn’t happen, according to Brown. Only two students enrolled.
Brown still wanted to take the class; he said Shepard told Ray, ‘Oh just go ahead — fine.’
It was a concession that proved prophetic. “So it was a year later, I wrote Dr. Shepard’s obituary,” Brown said.
The Great Debate
The struggle Shepard undertook to fund the institution that eventually became NCCU is well-documented.
NCCU’s heritage as the first liberal arts institution for blacks in the nation is by Shepard’s design.
He wasn’t strictly a Booker T. Washington man or a W.E.B. DuBois man.
“Both were Dr. Shepard’s friends. Dr. Shepard borrowed from both philosophies,” Vann said.
“The first speaker Dr. Shepard ever brought here for the Chautauqua if you would have checked — was W.E.B. DuBois.”
There is also a yellowish, faded photograph of Booker T. Washington standing on the old Avery Auditorium steps with a group of people — after speaking here on campus.
The photo is part of the “James E. Shepard Papers 1905-1990,” a Web archive created from the archival material compiled in the James E. Shepard Memorial Library.
Brown said spending Sunday afternoons during his college years listening to a speaker at North Carolina College for Negroes was an important cultural education.
“In those days Sunday afternoons were days that, certainly that middle-class blacks looked toward attending a Vespers Service at North Carolina College,” Brown said.
“And of great interest was who would be the speaker. And almost always, the speaker was a protegé of Dr. Shepard.”
Brown said times have changed. People spend Sundays watching football or basketball, but back then the Vespers Service was a big draw — and mandatory for students.
“I lived off campus and I did not have to attend. But I did attend. It was one of the great chapters of my life,” Brown said.
The Race Issue
In an April 4, 1942 letter published in the Wall Street Journal, Shepard wrote: “I am a member of a group of more than fourteen million Americans, and I am speaking not for them alone because that would not be speaking for every American, but there is no complete America which does not have an indefinite concern for the fourteen million Negro Americans.”
Vann said Shepard’s role in the long Civil Rights Movement was one of his great contributions.
He was criticized by the black community for not releasing the transcripts of Raymond Hocutt, when Hocutt attempted to gain entry to the UNC-Chapel Hill graduate school of pharmacy through legal action.
Shepard’s refusal to endorse Hocutt sunk the case, but Vann said Shepard had his reasons.
He was looking toward the future for all African Americans.
Eventually, Shepard and other black educators were able to establish graduate schools at HBCUs — solid institutional foundations that still stand today.
Shepard found a way to parlay segregation into support for his college, while still speaking out against it, according to Brown.
He used the injustice as a means of persuasion with the North Carolina General Assembly.
Brown said Shepard would tell the legislature, “The price of segregation is high — we need X and Y.”
Shepard died in 1947. He was preceded in death that same year by his wife, his mother and his best friend, W. G. Pearson, according to Vann.
“Dr. Shepard was a guy who walked among the people,” Vann said.
The James E. Shepard Papers, 1905-1990 are available Online or at the James E. Shepard Memorial Library Archives.
The Echo wishes to thank NCCU alumni Dr. Walter Brown for his willingness to speak about his memories of Dr. James E. Shepard., Andre’ Vann, coordinator of NCCU Archives for his knowledge and assistance and the late Brooklyn T. McMillon, who, through his caretaking of the Shepard Papers made much of this reporting possible.