William Benjamin Gould’s diary traces road to freedom

Brian Wright O’Connor | 10/3/2012, 7:44 a.m.
Civil War veteran William B. Gould and his sons: (L to R) Lawrence, James, William Jr., Herbert, Ernest, and Frederick. Dedham Historical Society

Gould did not learn about the proclamation until March 8, 1863. His diary entry noted, “Read the Articles of War. Also the Proclamation of Emancipation. Verry good.”  The subdued passage contrasts with more passionate entries denouncing slavery, the mistreatment of black sailors, and “would-be King Jeff,” a reference to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. 

He also condemned colonization schemes to send African Americans to Africa or Haiti, saying, “We were born under the Flag of the Union and we never will know no other. My sentement is the sentement of the people of the United States.” 

Gould IV speculated that his great-grandfather learned to read and write from church missionaries in North Carolina in violation of laws prohibiting literacy among slaves. His surviving writings include not just diary entries but also several columns published under the pseudonym Oley in New York’s “The Anglo-African,” an abolitionist newspaper. His contributions were part of an active political and social life of concerts, lectures and meetings pursued during shore-leave in New York, Boston and other ports. 

In Nantucket, he met his future wife, Cornelia Reed, a former slave whose freedom was purchased with the help of prominent black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. After the war, Gould and Reed were married by the Rev. James E. Crawford in the African Baptist Church on Nantucket. 

Among the most poignant of Gould’s writings is a description of his return to occupied Wilmington — his birthplace, the scene of his escape and the place his skilled work can still be seen in the ante-bellum Bellamy mansion. 

Writing in the Nov. 4, 1865 “Anglo-African,” seven months after Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, Gould finds “the old Town anything but what we left it. Her streets are entirely deserted. Her wharves that used to groan under million of barrels and thousands of bales are entirely bare. Her stores are all closed with few exceptions and her workshops are silent. The river glides noiselessly by, and not a ship there to break the current. The grass is growing unmolested in her streets.” 

Nowhere is the double veil of which W.E.B. DuBois wrote in “Souls of Black Folk” more evident than in what follows: The reflections of a man — born a slave, now free, a black sailor in a white navy — looking at the dying embers of a city he once knew but seeing in its demise a new burst of freedom. 

“Yet with all this change for the worse, there is a still greater change for the better,” wrote Gould. “You miss the Auction block in Market Square where the traffic in Human beings used to be carried on. Her Traders Jails are turned into military Guard Houses, where at any time you may see any number of the former Lords of the soil taking a view of the passer by from a commanding position. The nine O’clock Bell, too is silent, and when you walk out at night the demand for your Pass is not made, and upon the whole, Wilmington is changed.”