Authors & Illustrators
Ray Anthony Shepard
Ray Anthony Shepard is the grandson of a slave and was the first African American editor-in-chief of a major educational publishing house. He holds an MAT from Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he received a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He has taught at Phillips Andover Academy and Brandeis University. He lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts. rayanthonyshepard.website.com
Now or Never! 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s War to End Slavery
A Conversation with Ray Anthony Shepard
Q: Why did you decide to write about slavery?
A: As a fifth-grader in Nebraska, I was one of the few Black students in the class, and when American slavery was taught, I was embarrassed by the topic. It called attention to my physical differences and implied that somehow I was not quite as good as my classmates. Today we would say I felt my “other-ness,” and for reasons never explained I came from a group that deserved to be enslaved. And my family history intensified my discomfort. My mom often spoke about her father who was born into slavery (1859) and emancipated when he was six years old. This meant I sat in class knowing I had a grandfather who had been enslaved and a great-grandfather who was his owner. Nothing in my three years of American history (fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades) made that anxiety go away. Later, as a history teacher, I discovered how difficult it was to teach American slavery without making some students feel ashamed, angry, or guilty. In writing this book I wanted to tell a story that would lay bare to young readers the role of slavery in building America and how racial attitudes in the North and South sustained it for so many years. And I wanted to do it in such a way that readers would see how the courage of individuals led to the abolition of American slavery. I hope in writing Now or Never! I have shone a little light on how difficult it was to end the idea and practice of one human owning another—humans as property. That being said, I doubt that my book makes teaching about American slavery any easier, but in writing it my admiration and appreciation of American history teachers increased. They are charged with helping students understand slavery as a pivotal issue in American democracy and doing so in a way that fosters a greater appreciation for the sacrifices that so many made to make concrete the inspirational ideals of individual freedom and liberty.
Q: In the book, why do you refer to slavery as American slavery?
A: Often slavery in the American colonies and the United States was called African slavery because the enslaved came from Africa. Although slavery existed throughout history, slavery in the United States was uniquely American. For nineteenth-century Americans, it was a stark reminder of the gap between enslavement and the values of individual freedom and liberty consecrated in American independence. Slavery was a critical driver of economic development, yet beneath this growing wealth bubbled the critical question from 1776 to 1865—how to let go of slavery, if let go at all. The slaveholder and slave father, Thomas Jefferson, well understood the problem when he characterized the dilemma as: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” The Civil War forced a legal end to slavery that neither the Union nor Confederacy were ready to embrace. And it was a brutal letting go, claiming the lives of more than two million Americans—soldiers, civilians, and slave refugees. My use of the term “American slavery” in Now or Never! is from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and I use it to help readers understand the difficulty of this letting go.
Q: What led you to choose the 54th as a way to write about American slavery?
A: When I worked in Boston, I passed Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw Memorial twice a day. Often I would stop to admire the artist’s realistic portrayal of the soldiers’ facial features and how Saint-Gaudens showed these free men of the North’s unwavering courage and pride as they offered to sacrifice themselves to liberate enslaved African Americans. Later I came to understand the memorial as a touchstone of American history. It was here that the known and unknown icons in the fight for racial justice had gathered and will continue to gather as long as that landmark stands. The image and spirit of the courage and bravery of Stephens, Gooding, Shaw, Carney, and thousands of others are on display. And their dignity and significance have been witnessed by Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, WEB DuBois, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, and many others. Although Boston is known for its Revolutionary War history—Paul Revere, Bunker Hill, the Tea Party, and the Liberty Tree—for me it is Saint-Gaudens’s evocative tribute to the men of the 54th that urged me to retell their story.
Q: Why is the 54th a turning point in the Civil War?
A: There are two major reasons: First, the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to fill depleted Union ranks by enlisting free African Americans to help liberated slaves whom Abraham Lincoln had declared free. The success of the 54th encouraged the enlistment of 180,000 Black soldiers and gave the Union a manpower advantage over the Confederates, who had more African Americans but dared not arm them to defend their own enslavement. The second major reason was the question Henry Gooding asked Abraham Lincoln, “Are we Soldiers or are we Labourers?” Massachusetts governor John Andrew persuaded the War Department that Black soldiers in his state regiments would serve as fighters and would wear the same uniform and receive the same arms and pay as White soldiers. This was the first large-scale social equality effort in United States history. Even so, there were restrictions: the regiments would consist only of Blacks but would be led by White officers. With regard to equal pay, the War Department reneged on its promise and ruled that African Americans were to be classified as manual laborers and paid half the rate of White soldiers. In protest, the soldiers and officers of the 54th refused all pay and fought Confederates (who threatened to hang them when captured) for eighteen months without pay. Gooding died of his battle wounds and mistreatment while imprisoned at Andersonville without being paid. The stance of the 54th and 55th pressured Abraham Lincoln’s administration to restore equal pay. It was a heroic sacrifice as great as their charge on Fort Wagner. The men of the 54th were willing to die to prove they were equal to White men and that all African Americans deserved the full liberties of American citizenship.
Q: Do you think your book adds to or hinders discussions for removing Confederate monuments or flying the Confederate flag?
A: We have to distinguish between personal rights and public responsibilities. Clearly individuals have the right to fly the flag of their choice. Being a University of Nebraska grad, I fly my Go Big Red flag on football Saturday even though I live 1,500 miles away. But I wouldn’t fly (though legally I could) a Nazi, KKK, or an ISIS flag, yet I understand the Constitution allows my neighbors to do so if they choose. I hope, after reading Now or Never!, a reader who wants to display a Confederate flag does so knowing its history and original purpose—racial superiority and human slavery—and does not pretend they are flying the “rebel flag” to honor southern culture, when in fact they are demeaning it. When it comes to public funding for Confederate monuments in the public space, or flying the Confederate flag over public buildings, I strongly believe that only our country’s flag and monuments to the people who upheld the ideals of our Constitution and America’s aspirational ideas should be honored in the public space by public money.
Q. What is the difference between how the 54th is portrayed in the film Glory and Now or Never!?
A. Glory is one of my all-time favorite movies, and Denzel Washington is my wife’s favorite actor, but Glory is a Hollywood treatment of the 54th in the battle at Fort Wagner. The movie shows the bravery of the soldiers and officers and the racial tensions of the era—the mistreatment, violence, and double standards faced by Black troops. The film is told primarily from Robert Gould Shaw’s point of view and ends with Shaw’s death in July 1863, although the regiment fought until the end of the war in 1865. Now or Never! is told from George Stephens’s and Henry Gooding’s points of view and is based on their war dispatches. The other major differences are: 1) because the film ends with Shaw’s death, it does not show the success of the soldiers’ eighteen-month protest for equal pay and quest to become officers, and 2) it portrays the men as mostly illiterate (not knowing their left foot from their right) rather than showing the unusual literacy, surprising for the time, of the regiment that included not only Stephens and Gooding but also Frederick Douglass’s oldest son, Lewis.