William H. Heard (ambassador)

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William Henry (Harrison) Heard (25 June 1850–12 September 1937) was a clergyman of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who served as United States Ambassador to Liberia from 1895 through 1898.

William H. Heard

Early life[edit]

Heard was born into slavery in Elbert County, Georgia, some three miles from the small settlement of Longstreet. Although his father, George W. Heard (b. circa 1813)[1] was a slave he was also a skilled workman, first a blacksmith and later a wheelwright and carpenter. Of mixed race, George was the son of an unknown mother and, reputedly, a white man named Thomas Heard:[2] (probably Thomas Jefferson Heard, son of Stephen Heard). William Heard's mother was Pathenia or Parthenia[3] Galloway (d. circa 1859).[2] She was a farm hand skilled in plowing, but as she was also valued by her owners as a "breeder" (a woman who regularly produced children), she was allowed to work close to her own cabin in order to nurse her children frequently.[2] As they were slaves, Heard's parents could not enter into a legally-recognized marriage. Also, as they belonged to separate estates some three miles apart they could not live together; but his father was given permission by his owners to visit his family twice a week during the time his labor was not required (overnight, Wednesday-Thursday: Sunday).[2]

Heard, with his mother and three siblings Millie, Beverley and Cordelia,[4] was sold twice as a child. When he was nine and already working as a servant in the household where his mother was a cook, both she and his elder sister died of typhoid fever. At age ten Heard was set to work as a plow boy on a farm. At fifteen, having been assaulted by a drunken "boss man" and becoming aware of the potential ending of his slave status after the Civil War, he fled and began living with his father, who kept a wheelwright's shop in Elberton.[2]

Although literacy was forbidden to slaves prior to the Civil War, Heard attended Sunday School and trained his memory by learning large amounts of the Bible by rote.[2] After emancipation, while living with his father, he paid a white schoolboy ten cents a lesson to teach him basic literacy.[2] He also began working for a local farmer, on terms of five dollars a month and the opportunity, each night, of reciting back to him a lesson Heard had learned over lunch. This farmer was William H. Heard, from whom Heard then took his name (he had previously been known as "Henry").[2] Heard then attempted a similar arrangement with another local farmer, but, dissatisfied with the education he was receiving, he returned and began working at his father's shop.[2] By this time a school had been set up in Elberton which he could attend.[2] By following every opportunity for educational advancement which offered itself, Heard in time achieved a teaching qualification and a place at university.[2] He attended the University of South Carolina until 1877, when all black students were removed by the state government.


In the 1870s during the Reconstruction era Heard was elected to the state legislature in South Carolina, as a Republican representing Abbeville County, but was removed when the Democrats achieved power. Because of his political interests he was not allowed to find work as a teacher in the state.[2] He later completed his education in Philadelphia.[2]

In 1878 Heard, whose parents had followed Baptist and Methodist faiths,[5] joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He rose rapidly through its ranks, being ordained elder in 1883[5] and elected Bishop in 1908.[5] As well as being a preacher he was an active organizer and fundraiser, holding appointments to numerous missions, and from 1888 attending all A.M.E. general conferences as delegate.[5] He also continued to press for equal treatment for all citizens, regardless of color. In 1887 Heard launched a legal challenge against the Georgia Railroad Company over its practice of providing separate and inferior accommodation for blacks while charging them full prices.[6]

With the help of Henry McNeal Turner he obtained his diplomatic appointment, being nominated Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia by President Grover Cleveland on 21 February 1895.[7] While in Monrovia, Heard also served as superintendent of the Liberia Annual Conference of the A.M.E. Church and built the first A.M.E. church in the city, the Eliza Turner Memorial Chapel. Before returning to America he also toured Europe, observing during a visit to the British Museum that the mummies of Ancient Egypt were clearly of an African, not a Caucasian, race. He also noted that racial prejudice was less strong in France than in any English-speaking country, and seemed non-existent in Switzerland.[2]

Heard continued to be active in the affairs of his church for the rest of his life, attending the second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, Scotland, only the month before his death. On reports circulating in the press that he had been refused accommodation by one Edinburgh hotel on grounds of color, he was invited to meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Simon, and his wife, at another. The Archbishop of York also offered him hospitality.[8]


Heard married Josephine Delphine Henderson, of Salisbury, N.C., in 1882.[5][9]


William H. Heard died in Philadelphia on 12 September 1937. His death was reported in major newspapers both in America[10] and in Britain.[11]


  • Africa: Verse and Song Atlanta, Ga. : Union Publishing Col., [ca. 1900?]
  • The Bright Side of African Life A.M.E. Publishing Co, Philadelphia, 1898
  • From slavery to the bishopric in the A.M.E. Church New York : Arno Press, 1969.
  • The American Negro's Opportunities in Africa (essay) [3]



  1. ^ 1870 census, Elberton, Georgia:"George Heard; 57; male; mulatto; wheelwright;b. Georgia;(personal estate)$50; unable to read; unable to write; U.S. citizen" - www.familysearch.org
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n From Slavery to the Bishopric in the A.M.E. Church, An Autobiography by William H. Heard
  3. ^ see death certificate of George Clarke Heard, 25 September 1920, Clarke, Georgia, U.S.A. [1]
  4. ^ A last brother, George Clark Heard, was born later:From Slavery to the Bishopric in the A.M.E. Church, An Autobiography by William H. Heard
  5. ^ a b c d e Wright, Richard R., Centennial Encyclopaedia of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Book Concern of the A. M. E. Church, Philadelphia, 1916, p.111
  6. ^ New York Times, 30 July 1887:"No "Jim Crow cars". The Georgia railroad demands relief of the Commission."
  7. ^ New York Times, 22 February 1895
  8. ^ "Invitation To Faith Conference." The Times [London, England] 9 August 1937: p. 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.
  9. ^ Josephine D. Henderson married William Henry Heard, 21 January 1882 in Clarke, Georgia. [2]
  10. ^ New York Times, 13 September 1937:"Bishop William H. Heard of the African Methodist Episcopal Church died early yesterday morning in the Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia..."
  11. ^ The Times: Obituary, 14 September 1937, p.14.