Honoring a Remarkable Life: The William B. Gould Memorial Project

By Joanna Wendel

Over the summer, as he watched statues fall around the country, Brian Keaney began to think about the role of public monuments. Not long ago, Keaney, a native of Dedham, MA, became fascinated by the life of William B. Gould (1837–1923), a former slave and member of the US Navy who also happened to be a longtime resident of Dedham. An idea crystallized in his mind: why not create a brand-new memorial to commemorate this remarkable, yet largely unknown, individual?

A daring escape, a surprising discovery

Born into slavery in Wilmington, NC, Gould escaped the night of September 21, 1862 by rowing down the Cape Fear River with seven other men until they reached the Atlantic. A Union ship, the USS Constitution, took Gould and the other fugitives aboard, recording their status as “contraband.” Shortly thereafter, Gould enlisted in the Navy, and spent the remainder of the war pursuing Confederate ships around the coast of Europe. After an honorable discharge in September 1865, Gould married and settled in Dedham, working as a plasterer and stonemason and raising eight children. He was active in his community, especially as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization for veterans of the Civil War.

In 1958, Gould’s grandson made an unexpected discovery while cleaning out the family’s attic: a diary of Gould’s years in the Navy between 1862 and 1865. It is one of the only known diaries by an escaped slave to survive from the Civil War period. In page after page of elegant handwriting, Gould records his daily life in the Navy as well as his thoughts about war and race relations. He sometimes includes his opinion of current events, such as his jubilant reaction to the news of the Confederate surrender.

Gould’s great-grandson William B. Gould IV published the complete annotated diary as Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor (2002). To write the book’s introduction, Gould IV, formerly a law professor at Stanford and chair of the National Labor Relations Board, spent years doing archival research and retracing the path of Gould’s early life. The original diary is now the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

How Gould became literate remains a mystery. Although slaves were officially prohibited from learning how to read and write, Gould had clearly received an extensive education by the time he escaped. His diary makes allusions to Shakespeare, and reveals knowledge of French and Spanish. Gould IV speculates that his great-grandfather might have learned to read and write at a church in Wilmington. The erudite diary raises many questions about literacy among slaves, suggesting great potential for further research.

A memorial gains momentum

Keaney’s idea gave rise to an official committee dedicated to the Gould memorial project. The committee recently succeeded in its effort to have a small park in Dedham—just down the block from the Gould family’s former home—renamed in Gould’s honor. Their next step is to design and build a memorial. Although Keaney originally envisioned a statue, the committee is exploring a variety of options. For example, one designer has suggested a pavilion with a walkway extending over the river, alluding both to Gould’s Navy service and his escape from slavery by boat.

The committee hopes to have the project completed by Memorial Day 2023, which will coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gould’s death. In addition to adding a sign to the newly-renamed park with information about Gould, the committee is campaigning to add the story of Gould’s life to the curriculum of Dedham schools.

More information about the Gould memorial project can be found on its official website. To learn more about Gould’s fascinating life, join The Pursuit of History’s History Camp Online on January 14 for a conversation with William B. Gould IV.