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.