On May 31, 2021, William Francis Shepard, Jr was remembered and honored by the City of Worcester for his sacrifice during World War I. The ceremony took place at his gravesite in Hope Cemetery.
William was born in Worcester, MA on 15 April 1899 to Mabel and William Shepard, Sr. William, Sr was the 2nd son of Jeremiah James Shepard of Monson, MA and Nipmuc Harriet White of Sturbridge. Growing up Black and Nipmuc in the early part of the 20th century could not have been easy for William. His parents separated shortly after his birth and he and his older sister, Ruth, grew up with their mother, Mabel, and her parents, James and Sarah Hill. James and Sarah were White as were the rest of their household. The Hills did live on a majority Black street though – Mason Court.
When William, Jr was not quite 4 years old, his father died. William, Sr.’s death record gives the cause of death as murder due to a blow on the head. The father had a contract with American Steel & Wire Co. to whitewash the factory walls. One of his employees, William H. Smith, had a disagreement with Shepard, Sr. which escalated into Smith bashing Shepard on the head with a wooden board several times. William Sr. died several hours later in the hospital and the employee was charged with murder.
My research unearthed no records for the family between 1906 and 1918 when William, Jr. left for war. Records show that William enlisted in the all-Black First Separate Company of Connecticut, part of the CT National Guard, in New Haven. Multiple members of his father’s Shepard family had lived in Madison, CT just miles from New Haven for several decades which may be why William enlisted in the CT unit.
William shipped out of Newport News, VA on the Susquehanna bound for France with the 93rd Infantry Division on 30 March 1918 about two weeks before his 19th birthday. In France, he was assigned to the Company K, 372nd Infantry. The 372nd was a Black infantry unit that served under French command during WWI and included men from multiple National Guard units.
William’s unit led the fighting in the Champagne-Marne region – a battle that helped to end WWI. The unit was later heavily praised by French military leadership and awarded France’s highest honor. Their bravery was deliberately hidden by the American military for fear of upsetting white soldiers. William died on the first day of the primary assault, 28 September 1918. His body lay buried in France until 1921 when it was disinterred and sent back to Worcester for reburial.
The wars that the wealthy and powerful fight for more wealth, power, and control always have a price. And that price is always the lives of young men, boys really, who will never be what they were meant to be and the tears and pain of the mothers, wives, and family those children leave behind. Felt even heavier are the wounds of Black soldiers who fought so bravely only to be ignored by the American leadership and forced to live under the harshness of Jim Crow.