Educator James Edward Shepard, the oldest of twelve children born to Augustus and Hattie Shepard, was born on November 3, 1875 in Raleigh. His father placed an emphasis on education for his children, and James attended public schools and Shaw University. After receiving his degree in pharmacy in 1894, Shepard opened a pharmacy in Danville, Virginia, before relocating to Durham. In later life, he said of Durham, “Of all the southern cities I have visited I found here the sanest attitude of the white people toward the black.”
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Shepard left the medical field four years later to enter civil service, as a comparer of deeds for the Federal government in Washington, D. C. He returned to Raleigh in 1899 and served for the next six years as an Internal Revenue Service tax agent, before accepting a position as an International Sunday School Board for Negroes superintendent in 1905.
In 1910 Shepard founded the National Religious Teaching School and Chatauqua in Durham. As president, Shepard traveled the country soliciting donations to support the academy. With the aid of a large endowment on the behalf of Mrs. Russell Sage of New York, Shepard oversaw construction of a campus containing a dozen buildings and housing several hundred students by 1916. Shortly thereafter the school became the National Training School, and in 1923 became the Durham State Normal School when the state took over control. Shepard remained president, and in 1925, the school became the North Carolina College for Negroes, the first state-supported liberal arts college for blacks in the nation. The General Assembly altered the name again in 1947 to the North Carolina College at Durham, and yet once more in 1969 to North Carolina Central University.
Central to Shepard’s accomplishments was his devotion to compromise between blacks and whites. Favoring conciliation, Shepard once stated, “we cannot legislate hate out of the world or love into it.” He received praise from the General Assembly, which in 1948 officially stated that he acted “with wisdom and foresight for the lasting betterment of his race and his state.” However, more radical black leaders became disgusted with what they saw as Shepard’s bowing to white supremacy.
Despite his critics, Shepard and his school prospered as a result of his ability to win over the state legislature. A brilliant politician, Shepard maintained a Republican stance on the national basis, while supporting local Democrats. One Democrat praised him, stating that “he got a larger percentage of his requests than anybody did, and he generally aimed high.” In 1945, the High Point Enterprise named him one of the state’s ten most valuable citizens.
In addition to his presidency of the school, Shepard also served as head of the North Carolina Colored Teachers Association, director of the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of North Carolina, and was a member of the North Carolina Agricultural Society. He received honorary degrees from Muskingum College, Selma University, Howard University, and Shaw University. Shepard served as the only black speaker at the World Sunday School Conference held in Rome in 1910.
Shepard died on October 6, 1947 in Durham of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving a widow, Anne Day Robinson Shepard, and two daughters. The North Carolina Central University main library is named for him, and a full-body statue stands on the campus. In addition, the James E. Shepard Foundation, named in his honor, continues to provide scholarships to worthy black students at the school.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 328-329—sketch by Charles W. Eagles
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
Howard Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century (2000)
High Point Enterprise, July 9, 1945
(Raleigh) News and Observer, October 7, 1945
James E. Shepard Papers, North Carolina Central University Library, Durham