Another missionary has appeared in my family tree. Leighton McCutchen died as a Presbyterian missionary in the Congo in 1936. He was 30 years old.
Born in 1906 to a large, companionable family in South Carolina, Leighton married a woman from Texas in 1930. A few years later, they had a son.
By 1935, Leighton must have felt a call to missionary work in the Congo. The UK Passenger Lists of March 31, 1935 show Leighton, his wife, and his one-year-old son sailing to Southampton, England on the S. S. Statendam. On April 8, 1935, the New York Passenger Lists record them returning to the states.
On that trip, I suppose, Leighton may have been making arrangements in England to join the American Presbyterian Congo Mission.
Here is the next record of Leighton that I have. The first part:
So Leighton died on December 9, 1936 of septicemia—that is, a severe and suppurating infection. He was buried in the Bulape Cemetery in the Belgian Congo. His death must have occurred no more than 20 months into his missionary work.
Here is the second part of that record:
His wife took his belongings with her. A cousin seems to have already been in the Congo, at the Mission, to accompany her to Leopoldville and support her in filling out this form. I see no mention of a child here, but the question is not asked.
Yet I did find this picture of Leighton, his wife, and his son. It must have been taken within the 20 months after his trip to England and before his death:
If only I could find a speech, or a journal, about Leighton’s aspirations to be a Presbyterian missionary to the Congolese. What kind of idealism and purpose? Why the Congo? Leighton may have been named after our family’s famous missionary to Africa, John Leighton Wilson. Did he feel Africa was his destiny?
Some history may help us put ourselves in Leighton’s shoes.
King Leopold II came to the throne of Belgium in 1865. Working with the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, (1) Leopold strong-armed local Congolese tribal leaders into signing over their land rights to him. He called his resulting colony the “Congo Free State.” Free? Hardly. From 1885 to 1908, Leopold forced indigenous people into life-threatening labor. Millions of Congolese died under Leopold’s brutal working conditions, while Leopold’s Belgium grew rich and famous from the yields of rubber and copper.
Does this scene sound familiar? This is the Congo of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, woven from Conrad’s own previous experiences as an employee of Belgium in the Congo. This is the Congo whose foreign tyrant is satirized by Mark Twain in King Leopold’s Soliloquy. This is the Congo described by Adam Hochschild (1999) in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. This Congo is a nightmare of colonialism and rapacious inhumanity.
Some might think this Congo evokes the South in the days of slavery. Others might object that the South was not that bad. But is it wise to dispute degrees of inhumanity? I’d rather notice the irony that in 1865, when Leopold ascended to the throne, freedom was being granted that same year, by constitutional amendment, to all blacks on America’s plantations. History! Injustices wax and wane.
Another trick of history, in this case, is the fact that American Presbyterian missionaries to Africa—several of them from the South—worked to expose Leopold’s savage inhumanity. Lachlan Vass, a Southern Presbyterian missionary, wrote this in 1898:
- “How bad are the conditions? . . . I am in a position to say from personal experience . . . that the conditions in the Congo have not in the least been exaggerated . . . . I am a Southern [white] man from the black belt of eastern [North Carolina] and I don’t think we are often loaded with praise for our love of the Negro . . . but I wish to protest in the strongest terms to the absolutely inhuman way these poor people in their own country are being butchered by the white man, and all under the cloak of Philanthropy.”
The writings of Vass, Morrison, Hawkins, Sheppard, and other Presbyterian missionaries helped open the world’s eyes to Leopold’s crimes against humanity. According to Wikipedia here,
- “In January 1900 the New York Times published a report that said fourteen villages had been burned and ninety or more of the local people killed in the Bena Camba country by Zappo Zap warriors sent to collect taxes by the Congo Free State administration. The report was based on letters from Southern Presbyterian missionaries Rev. L. C. Vass and Rev. H. P. Hawkins . . . and the subsequent investigation by [William] Sheppard who visited the Zappo Zaps’s camp. . . . In January 1908, Sheppard published a report on colonial abuses in the American Presbyterian Congo Mission (APCM) newsletter, and both he and Morrison were sued for libel against . . . a prominent Belgian rubber contractor in the area.”
In 1908, Leopold’s personal rule ended. After Leopold’s overthrow, and moving forward into the 1920s and 1930s, the labor situation in the Congo was a few notches less inhumane, yet it was still hostage to the colonizing Belgians. Missionaries could improve education and health care, but they were themselves in a position vulnerable to co-optation by the greedy Belgian government. This photo is from this link:
Now back from the Congo to the South. Back to William Henry Sheppard, a black Presbyterian missionary from Virginia, whom we just mentioned as protesting with others against Leopold II. (2) In his earlier years, as a young man, he wrote to the Presbyterian Foreign Missionary Board in Maryland. He asked them whether he might start a mission in Africa. After enduring two years of their vague rejections, he approached them in person. He was directly told that the board would not send “a black man without a white supervisor.”
The white man who volunteered to go with Sheppard was Samuel Norvell Lapsley (Lapsley is one of my surnames), described as an “eager but inexperienced white man from a wealthy family.” Together, they resolved to work with equal numbers of white and black missionary assistants.
After his heroic missionary service, Sheppard returned to his native Virginia in the early 1900s. One Sunday, he spoke from the pulpit at a Presbyterian church. A rich white woman invited him to a dinner reception afterwards, at her house. She led him to the back porch, built off the dining room. From there, he spoke through a raised window to her guests eating dinner. He answered their questions about his experiences in the Congo. Link here.
Sheppard’s treatment is a typical Southern anecdote, and a comparatively mild one. I am juxtaposing the Congo with the South because I think my missionary relative, Leighton McCutchen, may also have had such a juxtaposition in mind, in some way. I can only speculate about his thoughts and feelings. Of course, it was idealistic and dangerous to join a mission to the Congo. That quest killed Leighton and left his family bereft. But at least in the Congo the path forward was clear. The good guys and the bad guys were both identifiable.
By contrast, back in the South, lynchings were at a peak in the early 1900s. The victims were blacks and black sympathizers. The South was filled with conflict, violence, and uncertainty when slaves were freed in 1865, and more uncertainty when the freed slaves struggled to make their freedom real—no easy task. How could you be sure exactly what your neighbors were thinking? Southern politics were hopelessly complicated, tied up with the disenfranchisement of blacks, Jim Crow laws, segregation, secret murders, sharecropping, the Red Shirts, and all the other trappings of “slavery without the chains.”
The South in those days would disorient anyone’s moral compass. And those stiff winds—which way were they blowing?
(1) This is indeed the famous explorer Stanley who was said to ask, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” He was not known to be respectful of blacks.
(2) See William Sheppard, Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo (Nabu Press, 2010), and William E. Phipps, William Sheppard, Congo’s African American Livingstone (Geneva Press, 2002).
Goodbye for a short while, everyone!
Your comments are always welcome!
I’ll return to my post(s) sometime after the first week in June.
Family events are summoning me now.