Meet Author Ray Anthony Shepard

I am a late-in-life historiographer, which is a fancy way of saying I’m an old history buff who was once a history teacher and schoolbook publisher and who now in retirement writes biographies for young readers. I tell true stories of African Americans and their allies who made American democracy more inclusive. It is one of the many reasons I am blessed to have the chance to tell my grandchildren and their generation about the successful but long battle to make America safer for African Americans.

There are many paths that led me here on this rainy afternoon as I tell you who I am and why I do what I do. I was born in Sedalia, Missouri, a former slave state where generations of my ancestors had been enslaved. And of course Missouri was the state at the center of the Missouri Compromise (1820) admitted to the Union along with Maine to balance the number of free and slave states. I was born 75 years after slavery ended, but in Missouri, the assumptions used to justify slavery were still in effect: segregated schools, housing, and jobs; where we could sit at that movies, and the days we could go to the state fair.

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city reluctantly named for the slain President. Nebraska was of course a crucial state in the Kansas Nebraska Act (1854), which overturned the Missouri Compromise and moved the country closer to the Civil War. In the mid-twentieth century the Black population in Lincoln was small; there were harsh racial attitudes but not formal segregation. Summers at my grandmother’s in Missouri, I was reminded where to sit at the movies (in the balcony), the days we could go the to the state fair (the low-attendance days, Monday and Tuesday), and to swim in the color-only pool.

At school I found history a bore, and at home I found history as told by my mother exciting. Her father was enslaved until he was six years old. And the stories he told her and she embellished as she retold them to me were spellbinding. His father, my great-grandfather, was a White circuit county judge who had a White family and a Black family. This judge was also my grandfather’s owner/master. It was the story of slavery not taught in school and denied in the prevailing understanding of American history.

The Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, slavery and segregation, school history and family history, were all jumbled together in a tense personal battle that led me to find a way to tell a fuller story of our country’s racial history.

I became a middle school history teacher, then a schoolbook editor, and now a self-proclaimed historiographer. How fortunate I am to spend my days reading, searching archives, and figuring out how best to write for young readers who will engage in the lives behind the facts. I strive to make readers, regardless of who they are, identify with the protagonists of my biographies and avoid the urge to defiantly shout I was never a slave, or I was never a slaveowner. I write for readers who understand the universal need for fairness. That’s what I strive for, and you get to judge how close I come to this goal.

My brush with historical places has continued since Lincoln, Nebraska—the place that had to have its arm twisted before the town fathers (yes, fathers) would agree, if they were to be the state capital, to change the name of Lancaster to Lincoln. I now live in Lincoln, Massachusetts with my wife Kathy and our rat terrier, Katy. Lincoln was settled in 1754 and named after Lincolnshire, England, not after the sixteenth President. This Lincoln sits on the battle road where on April 19, 1775, farmers loaded their muskets and ran to fight King George’s British soldiers in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It is here, on a rainy afternoon—about a mile from where Paul Revere was captured—that I sit and write this brief autobiography.

Thank you, if you’ve made it this far, and I hope you enjoy my books as much I enjoyed writing them.

Ray Anthony Shepard is available for appearances & events.

Contact him to learn more about speaking engagements.

Podcasts

Biographer’s International Organization: Episode #8

In this week’s episode, we interview Ray Anthony Shepard, author of Now or Never!: 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s Fight to End Slavery. This interview was recorded during BIO’s May 2018 annual conference in New York City. Listen now…

Historically Thinking: Episode #120

On Saturday, July 18, 1863, the 54thMassachusetts Regiment attacked Fort Wagner, a Confederate fortification defending Charleston Harbor. The assault began at about 7:45 PM. Within two hours, of the 624 men who made the attack, 54 were killed, 149 were wounded, 76 taken prisoner—half the regiment killed, wounded or captured.

But Fort Wagner was not the beginning of the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry nor its end. The complete story of both the regiment and the men who formed it is told by Ray Anthony Shepard in his book Now or Never: 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery, written for middle-readers, but, as one reviewer wrote, “an enlightening read for adults as well.” Ray Shepard has been both a teacher and an editor; this is his first book of creative non-fiction. Listen now…

Articles

Biographers International Organization: Black Lives / Young Readers

Being a biographer for young readers who writes about Black lives in America is a conundrum that goes beyond a writer’s normal anxieties. Let me count the ways. Read more…

Highlights Foundation: You’re Never Too Old to Write

A 70-year-old walks into a barn. No, it’s not the beginning of a joke. There’s no rabbi or preacher to deliver a punchline that knocks you to the floor in a fit of guffaws. There is, however, a moral: You’re never too old to write.

After 40 years of the classroom and educational publishing, I wanted an encore career of writing biographies for young readers. Three Highlights Foundation workshops later, two of my books are winding their way into bookstores and libraries. There’s a moral to this story as well: I’m not an overnight success, 70-some odd years in the making. Instead, I’ve been blessed by stubbornness, good luck, and the kindness of strangers. Read more…

Interviews

Boston Athenæum: Interview by Dani Crickman

Ray Anthony Shepard’s first book, Now or Never! 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery, was published in October 2017. Shepard describes the book as “the story of two black Civil War soldiers whose battlefield dispatches documented the regiment’s battle against Northern white racial arrogance as they fought the Confederacy’s attempt to establish an independent slave empire. George E. Stephens and James Henry Gooding answered Frederick Douglass’s call: ‘through Massachusetts we can get our hands on treason and slavery.’ Read more…

The History Makers

Educational publisher Ray A. Shepard was born on June 26, 1940 in Sedalia, Missouri to Cornelius “Boots” Shepard and Loretha Mae Jackson Shepard. He graduated from Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Nebraska and served in the United States Army during “The Cold War,” based in Germany at the time of the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crises. After he completed his tour of duty, Shepard earned his B.S. degree from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1967. He received a Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to attend Harvard University and earned his M.A. degree in teaching from Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1971. Read more…

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