History and the people who make it: Eric Sheppard

This month, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program is featuring one of the interviews from the new Underground Railroad Oral History Project collection. 

This July, 2023 interview was conducted with Mr. Eric Sheppard (S), founder and CEO of Mubita LLC and descendant of Underground Railroad freedom seeker, Moses Grandy. 

This excerpt was edited by Donovan Carter (C). For the full interview, go to our YouTube page, SPOHP111, or go to: tinyurl.com/Iguana1899

C: Today is July 20th, 2023. We are here in the North Carolina State Park at the Great Dismal Swamp. My name is Donovan Carter with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, and I’m joined by: 

S: I’m Eric Sheppard.

C: Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Sheppard. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are and where you’re from? 

S: I was born and raised in Baltimore City and about twenty-some-odd years ago, I decided to start tracing my family tree. 

I had done a lot on the Sheppard side and my grandfather married a Grandy, my grandmother, Elnora Grandy. I had never come down to this area before, until I started tracing my roots. 

When I first came down here and went into Chesapeake, Virginia, I met my father’s first cousin and he informed me that the family really came out of Camden, North Carolina. 

Came down here for the very first time and we find out the church community and the cemetery where everybody might be buried. Sure enough, my great-great-grandfather’s headstone was there. His name was Edmund Grandy. He was born in 1827, died in 1906. That story led to this whole discovery of our family ancestor, Moses Grandy, who was born here in Camden County around 1786.

In 1843, his story was told and published in a slave narrative. I had no clue about the slave narrative when I was down here. It’s a place nearby called Grandy, North Carolina, and I thought maybe there would be some family history in that part of North Carolina. 

When I got home, I did a Google search for Grandy, North Carolina, and up pops The life of Moses Grandy, late, a slave in the United States of America

Once I had uncovered that, I became what I call a genealogy detective. I used the clues in that slave narrative and everywhere Moses went, I went and found other Grandy relatives living there. So, we all came together in 2003 in Chesapeake, Virginia. We organized the first Grandy family reunion. 140 of us came together for the very first time. I would say 85 percent of us did not know each other. It was all based on the clues left in that slave narrative.

So, that’s been quite a journey. Moses Grandy was enslaved down here. He bought his freedom. It took him three times to do so, and once he bought his freedom, he had to go in a residence in a northern state for a year, and that was Providence, Rhode Island. 

I found some other relatives there. Just before he had the slave narrative written about his life, he was living in Boston, Massachusetts, and working in Portland, Maine as a waterman. He went over to London, England, where they documented his story. It was an organization called the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

 I went over to London, their organization still exists, and it’s called Anti-Slavery International now. We have information about the Great Dismal Swamp now, which is part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. 

The slave narrative would make for a great feature film, of what happened down here in Virginia, North Carolina area, the Great Dismal Swamp being an Underground Railroad destination for people who were enslaved. 

They gathered and came through here and found their way up north, I think by the waterways more so. If I had time, I would show you how the detective put some evidence together and how this more than likely happened for many of them that were trying to find their way to freedom and the waterways with the Great Dismal Swamp, a major key in the story. 

At that time, back in the early 1800s, there was a gentleman named Moses Myers who was the Dismal Swamp Canal Company president. So: digging the swamp, the canal, getting timber out to build houses and those type of things, back in the late 1700s, early 1800s. He was the president of the canal company, but he also owned five ships. Those five ships, I believe, were part of the Underground Railroad activity going North.

He actually went bankrupt, Moses Myers did, and one of the options given to him was to get involved with the slave trade so that he could save his company, and he refused. See, so it’s not just a black and white picture that we’re trying to paint. Everybody helped from different ethnic groups along the Underground Railroad, and we should give credit where credit is due.

C: Absolutely.

S: So, I became more-so involved at finding out about this story. 20 years ago, the fruits of the labor of our enslaved ancestors were given no recognition, so that became a part of my mission, to do that, and to make sure that Moses Grandy — and others — who were enslaved get their proper due in the African American community especially, but also to be recognized globally for their persistence to endure slavery in America. They survived long enough for us to be here today. So, that’s remarkable in itself.

C: You say you became more interested in the early 2000s about your family history. Could you pinpoint something that led to that interest?

S: In April of 1995, I was one of three gentlemen that met in Baltimore to plan the Million Man March. So, there was two gentlemen, two giants in their own right, that met at a restaurant. I was just there to go along with Reverend Dr. John Wright. He said, “Oh, come on down to this restaurant with me. Ben Chavis wants to talk about something Minister [Louis] Farrakhan is doing about some March or something.” 

When the three of us were at the restaurant and they were going over the Million Man March and what the vision was, I’m sitting there listening. After that meeting, of course, of course, Ben Chavis went on to other cities and Reverend Dr. Wright and myself talked about it. He was at that time, President of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] for the state of Maryland. I said to myself, “I understand why those two are involved,” but then I had to dig deeper spiritually. I had no clue what I was doing. [I] was not an activist, was not in those larger organizations, especially in some of the cultural or Afro-centric community. So, I was a little green from that perspective, but we did what we needed to do. I started to feel like, wow, who am I? 

Then, to me, divinely inspired, I had a thought that said, “Don’t worry about the March. What I have you for is after the March.” My spirit calmed down. The March went off. Everything was good. I say, “I must find out who I am.” And that led me to doing genealogy research. Who knew that I would find the Moses Grandy story?

Then everything just takes shape. Now, having the foundation of an ancestor who was enslaved opened the doors for me in Africa, and I took that slave narrative with me when I went there. We made some solid connections in Africa, which led to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge being a strategic tourism partner with the Barotse Kingdom in Western Province, Zambia.

C: Wow.

S: That’s one of the results of this and because that kingdom apologized to me when I got there — I was the first African American to come to that kingdom by themselves. In 2017, the King granted me 300 acres of land, in the kingdom, to build a homecoming headquarters for African Americans and others that want to connect to the African continent to heal and to provide hope for the future. 

You will know them by the fruit that they bear. We bear fruit, not me personally, but evidently there’s a certain energy around what we do and what’s happening here at the Great Dismal Swamp that needs to be shared with the world.

C: How far away is Moses Grandy from you, do you know? How many generations?

S: A lot of things were not recorded in those days, and a lot of things were not designed for us to find out about. But, there were clues that he left in the slave narrative and the dates. 

My great-great-grandfather was born in 1827 in Camden County, North Carolina. Moses Grandy’s son, that’s recorded in the slave narrative, he was also born in 1827. Moses Grandy, he identified who his children were and how they were sold to different places in the United States. He did not mention my great-great-grandfather. So, I believe my great-great-grandfather, Edmund Grandy, was Moses Grandy’s nephew. 

Moses Grandy did mention his siblings in the area and one was named Benjamin. Benjamin may, though I don’t have the records, been my great-great-great-grandfather and brother of Moses Grandy.

C: So, what ways have you talked to your own family about the story and the narrative and the history of that?

S: I’ve shared it with family, on the Grandy-Sheppard side of the family, as well as my mother’s side, the King-Flood side of the family. So they’re starting to learn more and more about it. 

All of us come from families, but we got that one or two family members who do the genealogy research who’s in charge of the reunions and not everybody gets that divine assignment to do that for their family. That’s why they all came down in 2003. 140 of us, from around the country. But, at least they know about it. Some of the younger children at that time were in school and they had projects around Moses Grandy as well. So, they know. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

[Break in recording]

S: Now we’re at Lake Drummond at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk, Virginia and we just dedicated and named this pier Reflection Pier to honor the ancestors and freedom supporters who helped our ancestors during their freedom struggle hundreds of years ago.

C: You mentioned as you learn more of the story of Moses Grandy, you also became hopeful for the future. Can you talk about what you hope for and what you wish to accomplish?

S: I’m hoping for a dramatic change in the visibility given to the history of enslaved people in America and in particular to the Great Dismal Swamp, because it was a major Underground Railroad stop. 

They have estimates of 50,000 people coming through here. Of course, the Maroons set up communities and lived here and were free. But then a lot of others came through here on the way to Free states. 

So, we want that history [to be] given visibility, to be shared around the world. We have a strategic tourism partner with the Barotse Kingdom in Zambia that now will share their history with us here at the Great Dismal Swamp and we will share the story here with the African continent. So, it starts to come together.

C: We’re out here on Reflection Pier, so when you are here, what do you reflect and think about?

S: For me, it has already paid dividends actually coming out here, finding out about the history, but there’s a certain energy out here that we’ve seen and witnessed, the peacefulness, that gives people hope for the future. 

I got one of the finest compliments I could ever get from an individual who happened to have been incarcerated on a murder charge. He came here, young man, I’m thinking in his thirties, got out of prison, was on parole and had to get permission to leave the state to come here, [from] his state. 

He said, “Mr. Sheppard, you know, if I had met you years ago, I probably wouldn’t have done what I did.” It wasn’t me. It was the energy out here and the history associated, [that] made him reflect. 

I think he will always remember the Dismal Swamp and maybe even come here and hopefully bring some of his network of people here to visit.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

Comments are closed.