FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Amber Shepard was the first in her Family to become an officer in the U.S. Army. It is a truth she carries with pride, attributing her success to strong Family values and a loving upbringing.
Shepard is even more proud to know her steps in life are building on a Family legacy that started long before she was born. She was just a child when her grandmother shared a powerful story that shaped the direction of her life and character. The story was about the origin of her Family that extended beyond Louisiana to Togo, a small West African country.
Listening to her grandmother share Family stories connected Shepard to her culture, and determined the person she wanted to be, she said. One story inspired her to continue building on her Family’s legacy of strength and resilience and lead her to join the Army.
“I am a proud descendant of Marie ‘Coincoin’ Therese Metoyer, enslaved as a housekeeper to a French merchant named Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer,” she said.
Marie’s parents were slaves brought to the North American continent from Togo, and her African name was Coincoin. Marie’s story was one of many involving offspring of slave and master, she said.
“They had a 19-year relationship, resulting in 10 children,” Shepard said. “At that time, Catholic laws forbade marriage to an enslaved person.”
The efforts of a parish priest broke up the relationship and Marie was sold to a slaveowner in New Orleans, Louisiana.
This prompted Claude to buy and manumit, or free, Marie in 1778 along with several of her children. Later Claude gifted Marie more than 60 acres of land, which according to surviving documents grew to more than 1,000 acres because of business acumen.
Marie’s story is profound, Shepard said, because it was so unusual then for Black people to own land, and because Marie went on to use her status to purchase other slaves to give them a pathway to freedom. She also educated herself and created the foundation upon which her children would later thrive.
“Upon gaining her freedom in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, she became a businesswoman,” Shepard said. “She was a landowner, a farmer, a nurse, a pharmacologist, and a hunter.”
As child, Marie was trained in pharmacology and nursing. These skills helped provide livelihoods when the women gained their freedom as adults.
“Her life story influenced me as a wife and mother because her strength to create Family wealth from nothing to something speaks volumes of the woman she was. I see that same strength in the women in my Family today,” Shepard said
Learning how the strength of Marie’s spirit paved the way for her Family to survive made Shepard want to do the same, she said.
“It influenced me to take opportunities to create a foundation to build for future generations,” she said. “I wanted to continue to build on that tradition.”
Shepard joined the ROTC program in August 2009 while attending Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was commissioned as an Adjutant general officer in May 2011, an experience, she said, gave her a platform to help others.
“My culture shaped my identity in the military,” she said. “At that time, there weren’t many Black female officers, so when other Black Soldiers would see me, it was like a sense of comfort. They had someone that understood them not because of the color of their skin but because of my understanding of the Black culture.”
After transitioning out of the Army, Shepard chose to continue her service as a Department of the Army civilian using her experience to empower others.
“Upon serving my contract as a commissioned officer, I decided to continue working closely with Soldiers but differently,” she said. “Working as the Directorate of Human Resources executive assistant/garrison adjutant, I can continue serving and supporting Soldiers and Department of the Army civilians, veterans and Family members.”
Although Shepard was born in New Orleans, her childhood was spent in Algiers and Marrero, Louisiana. Famous for Mardi Gras celebrations, colorful jazz clubs, voodoo practice and a delectable mixture of Creole and Cajun cuisine, Shepard said what she loved most about growing up in Louisiana was the atmosphere of living in what she felt was an exciting melting pot of cultures.
“Our cuisine is like no other place,” she said. “We have jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, gumbo, beignets and king cakes. The dances and music are very peculiar but are a blend of the cultures coming together.”
Shepard fondly remembers Second Line, a dance unique to New Orleans.
“We are famous for our New Orleans Second Line, which is a traditional dance that consists of people following a brass band, and a grand marshal, singing and dancing to the music, dressed in expensive costumes,” Shepard said. “Second Lines are done at funerals, weddings, parties and at Mardi Gras parades.”
Growing up, Shepard was amazed to learn the same melting pot of cultures that defined the state she grew up in characterized her Family history as well, she said.
“As I conducted my research, what amazes me is the deep rich culture of my Creole [a mix of African, French, Native American and Spanish ancestries] ancestral line,” Shepard said.
Digging into her history and learning about how colorful it is has helped her feel like she remains a part of it even while living far away, she said.
Through her ancestral research and collecting Family stories, Shepard plans to continue in her grandmother’s role as the Family historian, she said. To preserve what she finds, Shepard is compiling the research and stories into a book of Family history.
“Passing down Family history is vital to me,” Shepard said. “As long as my elders are here, I will continue to have conversations with them to document and understand their lives as children. When my grandchildren have questions about their great-great-grandparents, all they have to do is read their Family book. I believe you have to know where you came from to know where you are going.”