DEDHAM — The extraordinary life and legacy of William Benjamin Gould had been all but forgotten here, the town where he raised eight children, was a founding member of an Episcopal church, and served as commander of the Civil War veterans post.
His descendants knew Gould had fought during the Civil War. But it wasn’t until his diary was discovered by accident in 1958 that this remarkable story began to emerge: Gould had made a daring escape from slavery in North Carolina and served three years in the US Navy that rescued him from the Confederacy.
Gould’s great-grandson wrote a book about his forebear’s diary — the only such document known to have been authored by a formerly enslaved Union sailor — but his exploits had long faded from local memory. Few in today’s Dedham know much of the man, a plastering contractor whose work graces St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church and whose 1923 obituary described him as one of the town’s leading citizens.
But now, prompted by a grass-roots effort, Dedham is seeking to make Gould’s name resonate again, joining a broad movement to honor Black Americans whose lives, however notable, have been overlooked by history.
The town recently renamed a park for Gould and is considering further tributes to a veteran who saw one son serve in the Spanish-American War and five others in World War I.
“I started reading his story and was overwhelmed by it,” said Chuck Dello Iacono, the town official who made the motion to rename the park. “The things this man survived. It just amazes me. I think this is a great opportunity.”
The park near Mother Brook in East Dedham is 1.3 acres of little-used green space, a narrow strip of grass and trees on Milton Street near the home where Gould raised his family. No signs have been erected since the Parks and Recreation Commission voted Nov. 9 to rename Passive Park, but several ways to honor Gould are being discussed.
A statue, perhaps. Or maybe a garden. A formal dedication is expected, COVID-19 permitting, next spring or summer.
“This was just a crazy 2 a.m. idea I had,” said Brian Keaney, a 39-year-old Dedham writer who approached the parks commission about Gould. “Until his diary was discovered, there really wasn’t any way to know about him.”
Keaney learned of Gould through “Diary of a Contraband,” a 2002 book by William B. Gould IV, the veteran’s great-grandson, who was chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Bill Clinton.
Like the rest of his immediate family in New Jersey, Gould IV had not known of his namesake’s life as a slave, which he pieced together years after his father rescued the diary as workers tossed out the contents of a family attic in East Dedham.
Since that day more than 60 years ago, Gould has been enthralled and inspired by his ancestor’s life.
“His legacy should be one of inspiration, particularly to young people, to hold their heads high and have a sense of pride in what those who went before them did,” said Gould, 84, a law professor emeritus at Stanford University.
“Here is a man who under the most difficult, adverse circumstances that one can imagine was able to stand up, speak in a mature and independent fashion, and evaluate the world around him critically,” Gould said.
Gould’s great-grandfather escaped from Wilmington, N.C., by rowing 28 nautical miles down the Cape Fear River with seven other slaves, past a gantlet of Confederate sentinels, on a stormy night in late September 1862.
As daylight broke, the eight made a desperate dash toward the USS Cambridge, a Union ship that picked them up while on blockade duty off the coast. Several days later, the 24-year-old Gould enlisted in the Navy, a relatively integrated branch of the military where he spent the rest of the war.
On Oct. 3, 1862, he wrote in his diary of “taking the Oath of Allegiance to the Government of Uncle Samuel.”
Gould served first on the USS Cambridge as a low-ranking crewman before transferring in 1863 to the USS Niagara, a steam frigate that pursued Confederate warships in European waters. He saw combat, survived ferocious gales on the high seas, and wrote proudly of the Navy he served.
When the news reached Gould that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, the young sailor was aboard the Niagara off Cadiz, Spain.
“I heard the Glad Tidings that the Stars and Stripes had been planted over the Capital of the D--nd Confederacy by the invincible Grant,” Gould wrote.
“While we honor the living soldiers who have done so much, we must not forget to whisper for fear of disturbing the Glorious sleep of the many who have fallen,” he continued. “Martyrs to the Cause of Right and Equality.”
His writing is concise and often eloquent. The penmanship is extraordinary by modern standards. And the literacy that Gould displays in his diary is remarkable at a time when slaves throughout the South were barred from any formal education.
Indeed, Gould IV was unsure whether his great-grandfather had been free or slave when he began studying the diary, which he gave to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 2006.
“Many thought it would be impossible to be enslaved and have this degree of literacy,” Gould IV said. “I can remember my father sitting down in the living room and saying, ‘This is something really important. You ought to read this.’ "
Gould would spend more than 50 years stitching together clues from his great-grandfather’s life. He explored the Dedham years while teaching at Harvard in the early 1970s, scoured the National Archives when he was the National Labor Relations chairman in the 1990s, and traveled to Wilmington, N.C. — “where I didn’t know a soul” — in search of his ancestor’s roots.
In 1989, he found a breakthrough — a telltale notation in the Civil War log of the USS Cambridge, the ship that had rescued Gould near the Cape Fear River.
“It showed his name and the names of his seven other comrades, and it listed the names of their masters,” Gould IV said. “They called them ‘contraband.’ He had, in fact, been enslaved.”
Gould IV also learned of Nicholas Nixon, a Wilmington peanut farmer who owned his great-grandfather and dozens of other slaves. He sought out the riverbank where the escape began. And he visited Bellamy Mansion there, where his ancestor’s initials were found carved in the plasterwork.
“I went walking the streets looking for him,” Gould IV said.
Gould’s diary contains occasional references to race relations, writing with almost palpable sadness of how USS Niagara sailors greeted Black soldiers from a Maryland regiment who had been taken aboard temporarily.
The soldiers “were treated very rough by the crew,” Gould said. The sailors “refused to let them eat off the mess pans and called them all kinds of names. ... In all, they was treated shamefully.”
Although Gould was outraged by the episode, his account appears suggestive, his great-grandson said. “He seems to have considered the incident out of the ordinary or exceptional,” Gould IV wrote in his book.
A year later in 1865, Gould adamantly opposed the suggestion that American Blacks be colonized elsewhere as a way to address the country’s racial divide. It was an idea promoted at one time by President Abraham Lincoln, and later by some white Americans as the war ended.
“This move ... must and shall be resisted,” Gould wrote. “We were born under the Flag of the Union, and we never will know no other.”
Gould had advanced to a petty officer position of wardroom steward when he was honorably discharged in September 1865 at the Charlestown Navy Yard. He soon married Cornelia Williams Read of Nantucket, a former slave whose freedom had been bought in 1858. The couple later lived in New Hampshire and Taunton before settling in East Dedham in 1871.
Why he chose Dedham is unclear, although Gould had cousins in the Boston area whom he visited during the war. His great-grandson, a Hyde Park native who moved to New Jersey as a child, visited his father’s relatives on summer trips to Dedham.
The Goulds, one of only two Black families in Dedham, “must have been very much alone,” Gould IV said.
“Most of my great-uncles never married, and those that did, married late in life,” he said. “I have to think they were relatively isolated.”
Still, they were deeply engaged in community life. Gould was a founding member of the Church of the Good Shepherd in town, spoke in the schools, owned a plastering business, and was a fixture at veterans events.
During World War I, Gould received an ovation when he was introduced at Patriot Night in Dedham, according to the Dedham Transcript. Two of his sons already were in Europe with the Army, and a third was about to embark.
“I have ever tried to set them a good example,” Gould said, “and I expect to hear some good things from those boys.”
To Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Gould’s diary is a treasure on several levels.
“Gould lives in this world full of adventure and extraordinary events. His diary is a window into it, but it’s not the whole story,” Drummey said.
“Having been enslaved, Gould knows what freedom means, and he knows that he’s willing to fight for freedom for the 4 million people who are still enslaved.”
Nearly 150 years after Gould moved to East Dedham, in a small park near his former home, that vision and his military service will be honored anew.
“It’s something, I think, that’s a long time coming,” parks commissioner Jon Briggs said this month when the park was renamed. “But now is the time.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.