Stanford professor finds inspiration, fortitude from the diaries of his great-grandfather, who escaped slavery
As Juneteenth approaches, Stanford law Professor William Gould IV shares how the journals of his great-grandfather, who escaped slavery and fought against the Confederacy in the American Civil War, inspired him throughout his career and personal life.
Stanford law Professor William Gould IV remembers when he first delved into the diaries written by his great-grandfather, who escaped slavery and fought against the Confederacy during the American Civil War. It was 1958 and the journals had recently been discovered by Gould IV’s father in the attic of his late uncle’s home in Dedham, Massachusetts.
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“I can remember my father sitting in the living room reading the diary and saying to me, from time to time, ‘This is something you ought to take a very careful look at,’ ” recalled Gould IV, the Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus.
As Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, approaches, Gould IV’s great-grandfather’s story remains as relevant to readers today as it did when Stanford University Press published them in 2002.
“I think, particularly for young people who are sometimes disillusioned, despairing and discouraged, he stands an inspiration,” Gould IV said.
Who was William Gould?
William Gould’s diaries include two worn books and other unbound pages that detail his service in the U.S. Navy between 1862, the year he escaped slavery, and 1865. In addition to describing his life as a sailor, Gould also articulates his displeasure toward race relations of the era and the injustices toward the treatment of Black Americans.
For Gould IV, his great-grandfather’s diaries presented as many questions as they did answers.
Despite antebellum-era laws that prohibited teaching people who were enslaved to read and write, Gould’s diaries reveal a man incredibly informed and passionate about issues of the day. There are a few misspellings, however, it was common for formally educated people to misspell words, Gould IV explained.
Gould IV wondered more about his past, especially how his great-grandfather came to be so well read. “It was hard for me to believe that he was enslaved,” Gould IV said.
Gould IV spent over three decades trying to piece his great-grandfather’s story together. It wasn’t until 1989 that he finally caught a break.
While combing through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Gould IV stumbled upon logs for the U.S.S. Cambridge containing a description of eight “contrabands” who came on board after rowing 28 nautical miles down Cape Fear River and into the ship’s blockade of the city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Among the men listed, along with the names of their masters, was his great-grandfather.
As Gould IV came to learn, “contrabands” was a term used by the U.S. government to describe enslaved people who escaped to Union territory during the Civil War. In 1861, the U.S. Congress considered them to be seized property and could be enlisted into the military to support the war effort against the Confederacy. Prior, some officers returned people who escaped slavery back to the slave holder, as had been custom under the Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling.
“So that is what William Gould was on the day he boarded the Cambridge in September of 1862: a contraband,” Gould IV said.
By coincidence, on the very day that Gould and the seven other men found refuge on the Cambridge – Sept. 22, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Declaration, which stated that as of Jan. 1, 1863, any person who was enslaved in a state rebelling against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”
This declaration also meant that Black Americans could serve in the military voluntarily, which is what Gould chose to do.
A new perspective of the American Civil War
Gould’s diaries begin five days after he boarded the Cambridge, where he served as a paid crew member, and later, on the U.S.S. Niagara.
“He commences this diary on Sept. 27 and he says ‘I took a pledge of allegiance to Uncle Samuel.’ He always calls our Uncle Sam ‘Uncle Samuel.’ He has these unusual expressions and this is one of them that brings a smile to my face when I hear it,” Gould IV said.
His great-grandfather’s diaries gave Gould IV a new appreciation for the Navy’s contribution to the American Civil War.
“The Navy has never received the prominence that the Army has for this war and I began to see the importance of the blockade of the South Eastern states which were designed to shut off materiel and food going to Lee’s army in Virginia,” said Gould IV.
Gould’s diaries also describe how Europe was intertwined with pro-Confederate efforts, a fact that made him indignant. For example, in an entry about the C.S.S. Georgia, a Confederate ship disguised as an English vessel, he writes:
She showed the English Collors … we boarded her and found her to be the Rebel Privateer “Georgia” from Liverpool on her way to refit as A cruiseer, but the next cruise she makes will be for Uncle Samuel … That is one good deed for the “Niagara” and we hope that she will do many more before the cruise is up … We will now take A look around for some of the other cruisers of would-be King Jeff [Jefferson Davis].
Serving aboard the Niagara, Gould travels from port to port across Europe, in search of cruisers like the Alabama that they could destroy.
These entries inspired Gould IV to travel to the places his great-grandfather wrote about.
“It opened up an entirely new world for me, and it inspired me personally to get the sense of connection to him,” Gould IV said.
The Black experience of the Civil War
The diaries are as much a testimony to an incredible experience of a Black man during that era as they are a historic record detailing the life of a sailor during the Civil War.
Gould frequently shows his despair over race relations of the time. For example, he makes his disgust for slavery quite clear in one untitled entry titled, “The Negro and his Friends and Foes.” He writes:
We will now begin by looking far into the past far beyond the Declarration of Independence of 76 to that memmorable day the 11 of Dec. 1614 when 11 Negro slaves landed at Jamestown Va. And ask you was [it] for any act of friendship that those benighted Affricans were torn from their loved homes on the free plains of Affrica’s shores and transferred to the Wilderness of America. Was it and act of friendship that those Dutch traders exposed those Negros for sale. Was it and act of friendship that caused the F.F.V.’s to buy those misfortunate ones and make them the Hewers of the Wood and the Drawers of Water to clear thair Land, to Build thair Cittys and feed thair Mouths?
And from the doings of that eventful day spring all of the evils of slavery in this country.
Continuing his great-grandfather’s fight
Four generations later, Gould IV continues to fight against the same struggles his great-grandfather opposed during the American Civil War.
“I think he was concerned that the struggle against slavery was a struggle for genuinely, free Black labor,” Gould IV said. “This I think was something that influenced me in my career choice to become involved in labor law, to become involved in the rights of labor.”
After graduating from law school in 1961, Gould IV was assistant general counsel for the United Auto Workers in Detroit. He later joined the National Labor Relations Board and practiced labor law in New York City where he arbitrated and mediated the first of 300 labor disputes. He went to Washington, D.C., to serve as its chairman – the first Black American to hold the position – from 1994 to 1998 where he helped bring the 1994-95 baseball strike to an end.
“In the 1990s when I was in Washington going before a congressional committee which was so deeply hostile to me and the policies that I was supporting, I would read this diary in the evening and it would give me a great strength to go forward and realize that any discomfort and discouragement that I felt was child’s play compared to the real bullets that were flying by him as he fought for our ‘Uncle Samuel’ and the principles of right inequality,” Gould recalled.
Gould’s appointment to the Stanford Law School in 1971 was also a historic milestone for the school: He was its first Black law professor.
In between his teaching responsibilities and political appointments – which also included serving as special adviser to the Department of Housing and Urban Development on project labor agreements and later, chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board – Gould published 10 books and over 60 law review articles on topics ranging from labor law, Black organizing power, workers’ rights and employment discrimination.
Reflecting on the direction his own life and career took, Gould IV said his great-grandfather’s patriotism informed his own patriotic duty.
“I think that people today can learn from the diaries about how much the country, as it developed in the middle of the 19th century, began this gradual road towards progress and equality, which we’re just seeing the new most recent chapter of. We don’t see too much of this discussed these days, that it’s perfectly proper to infuse the struggle for equality with patriotism and to be supportive of the United States of America. That’s the way he was, that’s the way all my forebears were and that’s what I was to believe.”