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Stanford Report, April 9, 2003

Diary of professor’s great-grandfather helps document network of literate slaves

Escaped slave turns sailor; fights against Confederacy, writes about race relations


On the night of Sept. 21, 1862, eight slaves left Wilmington, N.C., in a boat and made a daring bid for freedom by rowing 28 nautical miles down the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean.

By the next morning, the fugitives had reached the mouth of the river and were picked up by a U.S. Navy ship, the U.S.S. Cambridge, which was blockading a Confederate fort. The slaves, termed "contrabands of war" by the Union officers on board, were offered a chance to join the U.S. Navy and fight in the Civil War. One of the men was 24-year-old William Benjamin Gould, the great-grandfather of William B. Gould IV, law professor emeritus and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

A few days after his escape, the first William B. Gould began a diary of his three-year service in the U.S. Navy. The journal, discovered in a great-uncle's attic in 1958, chronicles the life -- alternatively tedious and exciting, lonely and dangerous -- of a Civil War sailor. The diary details battles and national events of the day as well as Gould's personal reflections on the conduct of war, on race relations in the Navy and on what African Americans could expect during Reconstruction.

More than 140 years after Gould began the journal, his great-grandson has published it in Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. While faithfully preserving the entries, including misspelled words, Professor Gould also carefully pieces together the extraordinary life of his great-grandfather -- a literate slave and a skilled tradesman -- who settled in Dedham, Mass. The diary, which ends when Gould is honorably discharged from the Navy in 1865, is one of just three known journals from the period written by African American sailors. It can be viewed at

William B. Gould IV, law professor emeritus and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, pieced together the diary of his great-grandfather. He hopes his research will encourage scholars to take a closer look at the subject of literate slaves in the antebellum South. Photo: L.A. Cicero

The 373-page book published by Stanford University Press includes Gould's other writings, some of which originally appeared under a pen name in The Anglo-African, an abolitionist newspaper in New York City. Professor Gould said he hopes his research will encourage scholars to take a closer look at the subject of literate slaves in the antebellum South.

"This book highlights for the first time that there were a number of African Americans who were literate and who corresponded with one another," said Gould, the Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, Emeritus. "Despite the bar on literacy [for slaves] in the Confederate states, [my great-grandfather] had a vast network of correspondents. I think this is going to prompt a lot more inquiry on the part of scholars into other people who were similarly situated."

History Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, said the book is an important contribution to 19th-century African American literature. "This demonstrates, at a time when literacy was forbidden for slaves, many of them nonetheless, expressed themselves quite clearly and articulately," he said.

John Hope Franklin, a nationally renowned scholar of African American history at Duke University, said publication of the diary will help change the public perception of slaves as completely uneducated. "The diary almost stands in a class by itself," he said. Just as journalists today bring home the war in Iraq through their daily reports, Franklin said, so, too, did Gould faithfully record the Civil War from his perspective. "At the end of the day, he would begin to write," Franklin said. "How many soldiers, black or white, were able to keep a diary of the war? Even if you were literate you might write correspondence but you didn't keep a diary."

A Civil War journal

The diary, written in elegant penmanship, shows that Gould had more than a basic education, and that he was familiar with Shakespeare, French and Spanish. For example, on Jan. 2, 1864, bemoaning a lack of correspondence from home, he wrote:

"Oh for A mail. A mail. A Kingdom for A Mail."

Gould also was aware of national events as shown by his entry from Spain on April 15, 1865:

" ... in the Harbor of Cadiz. ... On my return on board I heard the Glad Tidings that the Stars and Stripe[s] had been planted over the Capital of the D-nd Confedercy by the invincible Grant. While we honor the living soldiers who have done so much we must not forget to whisper for fear of desturbeing the Glorious sleep of the ma[ny] who have fallen. Mayrters to the cau[se] of Right and Equality."

Gould's writing style is often understated and he rarely reveals personal emotions. But in an undated 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."

According to Professor Gould, his great-grandfather was of mixed race: Alexander Gould, his father, was a native of England, and his mother, Elizabeth "Betsy" Moore, was a slave born in Wilmington, N.C. Gould's owner was Nicholas Nixon, a peanut farmer from Wilmington. During the Civil War, as Professor Gould explained in the book, some slaveholders moved inland from Wilmington to avoid "disease, crime, downright bawdiness and the threat of invasion," and left their slaves with lessened supervision. It is likely that Gould planned his escape with fellow slaves who also shared a measure of autonomy.

A lasting legacy

Although Professor Gould was aware that his great-grandfather had served in the Civil War, his immediate family did not know about the diary's existence until it was discovered in 1958 after a relative had died. Gould recalled that he and his father would often read and discuss the diary, and that there was an unstated understanding that he would try to get it published one day. Gould said his father, who died in 1983, and his great-grandfather both endured "enormous, overt public discrimination" as African Americans. Despite this, he said, they overcame many obstacles and led successful lives.

Gould, an expert in labor law, said he took solace from reading the diary and understanding his family's struggles during his tenure as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. "In the 1990s, the environment was so difficult and hostile, particularly from 1995 onward when the power in Congress was transferred to Newt Gingrich and company," he said, referring to the conservative politician. "There was a tendency to feel tired and discouraged. I had hoped to accomplish so many things, and I felt so much of my time was spent rushing to Capitol Hill to put out fires. I would return very frequently to my condominium in Washington and read portions of the diary. Here was this man who had come from such difficult circumstances ... and was facing real hardship -- bullets, discrimination -- although he never talked about it. That reinvigorated me."

Just as the diary helped Professor Gould get through tough times, he said he would like the book to inspire other men and women facing adversity. "My hope is that young people who are disadvantaged ... will be inspired by this man who was so literate and resolute, and that this will push their lives forward," he said.

Furthermore, Gould said he hopes the book will refocus attention on the principles of equality accomplished in 1865 and the postwar constitutional amendments concerning the prohibition against involuntary servitude, equal protection for all people and the right to vote.

"In a way it is ironic that Trent Lott, at the dinner for Strom Thurmond, has brought new attention to this subject," Gould said, referring to Sen. Lott's statement last December that the United States would have avoided "all these problems" if the then-segregationist Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.

"The [Civil] War was against these people who were so hostile to the ideas of racial equality," Gould said. "Perhaps this diary and this man will highlight how important the principles of 1865 are to this country."