William Gould escaped slavery in September 1862 by rowing to a Union gunboat patrolling off the coast of Wilmington, N.C. His exploits are explored in a new book by his great-grandson, William Gould IV ’58.
By Shane DonaldsonPhoto(s) By Mike Salerno
There are rare instances in life when a person gets the chance to make a profound impact on society. William Benjamin Gould IV, a 1958 graduate who earned his bachelor’s degree in history, is a man who has seized such opportunities several times over.
Gould, who was President Clinton’s heavily contested appointment as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (he served from 1994 to 1998), is among the most respected experts on labor law in the United States. He is currently the Charles A. Beardsley Professor Emeritus of Law at Stanford University and the William M. Ramsey Distinguished Professor of Law at Williamette College.
He has written countless books and articles on labor law, but it’s his most recent publication that is of the most personal importance to him. Three decades of research and work has culminated in his latest book, Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor.
Diary of a Contraband elaborates on the eloquent and detailed passages kept by Gould’s great-grandfather, the first William Benjamin Gould, an escaped slave from North Carolina who served in the Navy for the Union during the Civil War. The diary, included in full in the book, chronicles Gould’s daily life in the Navy from September 27, 1862, through his honorable discharge three years later on September 29, 1865. Two periods are unaccounted for in the diary. The first, from May to October1863, occurred when Gould was hospitalized with measles. The second, from late September 1864 through early February 1865, has inexplicably disappeared.
A man of great stature and accomplishment, Gould IV leaves little doubt as to the significance, both personal and historical, of his latest work. “It is more special and important—maybe the most important thing I can do in my life—because of the fact that I am a direct descendant of William B. Gould,” Gould IV said. “I feel that he shaped the attitudes, philosophy, culture, and traditions that were a part of my father’s life and part of our whole household when I was growing up. Thus, he shaped my views.”
As Gould IV explained in the talk he gave on April 28 to a capacity audience in URI’s Cherry Auditorium, his great-grandfather escaped slavery in September 1862 by rowing to the U.S.S. Cambridge, a Union gunboat patrolling off the coast of Wilmington, N.C. Taken on board by the Cambridge, he served in the Navy for the remainder of the Civil War.
After the war, Gould traveled to Nantucket to marry Cornelia Williams Read, also a former slave. The couple raised eight children in Dedham, Mass., where Gould was a noted craftsman and pillar of the community.
How did the title of the book come about? Contraband, as used in the book’s title, is a contraband of war. It is defined as “goods that a neutral nation cannot supply to a belligerent nation except at the risk of seizure and confiscation.” Gen. Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts was the first to refer to slaves as “contrabands of war.” Gould was one of eight “contrabands” brought on board by the U.S.S Cambridge, and one of the dictionary definitions of contraband is “a Negro slave who escaped to or was brought within the Union lines.”
The historical significance of the book is unmistakable. The diary kept by Gould is believed to be one of just three Civil War diaries penned by black sailors and the first from a naval veteran who emerged from slavery. It contains Gould’s commentary on the war itself, his personal military engagements, race, race relations within the Navy, and what African Americans could expect following the war. The diary offers a sharp perspective on the Civil War from a viewpoint that has been overlooked by history.
During his speech, Gould mentioned the film Glory, which told the story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, the first black regiment to fight for the North in the Civil War. Asked if there was a chance of Diary of a Contraband becoming a movie, Gould IV mentioned that The Boston Globe had written of the book, “this is the stuff of movies.”
“Who knows?” Gould IV said. “The idea of Denzel Washington playing William B. Gould is one that holds a great attraction to me.”
While he was on campus, Gould was informed by Chris Hunter, assistant professor of civil engineering, that an award given to African American students who show both academic excellence and strong community contributions had been named in his honor. The Gould Award has existed for six years, and most recently it was given to African American studies major Reza Clifton and mathematics/sociology major Cynthia Prudence.
Hunter said the award was named for Gould because the University wanted to honor a graduate who had made significant contributions to both the campus and the world. Meeting Gould in person made a big impression on Hunter. “It’s humbling and it’s inspiring,” Hunter said. “You always read about folks, and you have this one picture on paper that is one part of a person. You can read the bio on a Web site. But when you meet the person, you actually feel his character, and you can sense his passion.” For Gould, who received the first of his five honorary doctorates from URI in 1986, learning of the award was an honor.
Writing Diary of a Contraband deepened Gould’s sense of family connection to history. Nobody in his immediate family knew of the diary until 1958, when his great-uncle, Lawrence Gould, died and left his belongings to Gould’s father, William B. Gould III. Many papers and books had already been thrown out when Gould’s father arrived in Dedham, Mass., to sort through his uncles’ belongings. It was then that the diary was discovered in the attic of Lawrence Gould’s home.
“I often use the word chilling,” Gould said. “It was very exciting when my father first told me of the diary. It was one of those things that sort of kicks in step-by-step. Every time I would re-read it, I was more impressed by this man and by his ability to stand up under adverse circumstances.”
Shane Donaldson ’99 is a sports reporter for the MetroWest Daily News based in Framingham, Mass.