Born in 1851, Ella Sheppard was enslaved on the Hermitage Plantation in Hermitage, Tenn. After learning that her daughter was being trained to spy on her, Ella's mother went to the river to drown both of them to escape the bonds of slavery. On approaching the river, Ella's mother was stopped by an elderly enslaved woman who insisted that no harm come to the child. Ella was eventually bought by her father and sent to Nashville. They then eventually moved to Cincinnati, where she began her musical training. She worked with distinguished music teachers to learn piano and singing. Ella's father died in 1866, and she began performing to audiences around the community in an effort to support herself and her stepmother. Ella eventually returned to Tennessee to help educate freed people. Recognizing her inexperience as a teacher, Ella enrolled in Fisk University in 1868 and was asked to be assistant instructor for a new group of singers at the university. She eventually left her post as instructor and went on to tour with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group known for traveling around the world, singing classics and old spirituals that were sacred to those who had been enslaved. After retiring as a Jubilee singer, Ella moved to Washington, D.C. and became friends with prominent figures such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington before moving back to Nashville with her family.