William Benjamin Gould was a slave in Wilmington North Carolina. His owner Nicholas Nixon would rent Gould out as a plasterer working on mansions and public buildings around town. When he was finishing up the interior trim work inside the luxurious Bellamy mansion, he did a risky thing for a slave, he signed his work. He scrolled his name on the inside of a section of some ornate molding before he attached it to the wall. No one knew of it till 100 years later when his signature was uncovered during a mansion renovation. It was quite the find, not just because it was unexpected, and not just because slaves weren’t supposed to be able to write, but mostly it was unexpected because historians actually knew who William Gould was.
In 1862, one year after that mansion was completed, William and six other slaves stole a small boat and rowed it out into the Atlantic Ocean where the Union Army had a series of ships blockading the Southern coast. They were scooped up by the USS Cambridge and now finding himself a free man, Gould joined the Navy.
At the war’s end Gould settled down and started a family in Massachusetts. He became an active member of the community and his story appeared in occasional articles in various periodicals. Not long after the signature was discovered in Wilmington, Gould’s diary was published as a book titled, Diary of a Contraband.
Even more remarkable is that out of the millions of black people who have lived in North America since the late 1600’s, we have such comparatively few records of their names or their stories. We know some, like Fredrick Douglass, but there were so many more. There was Henry “box” Brown, or Crispus Attucks, or William Gould. Black people have been present and participating in every step of the United States’ evolution and it is when we consider the level of that contribution that we realize how they are disproportionately invisible; so few names and even fewer stories. But if we learn to look closer, there is still a legacy.
Trinity Church in New York City was built by black men. So was the U.S. capital. Dozens of universities, Harvard, Princeton, UNC, UVA, were built by black people. We can imagine that somewhere, even if only symbolically, in all these buildings, hiding under the plaster molding, are thousands of signatures just like Gould’s. The dome at Monticello, the columns at Mt. Vernon, and the masonry walls of St. Augustine, all built by people with hidden names. Look for them. Ask about them. On Bourbon Street, in Charleston, or even St. Louis, look for the black people. They were there.
But you have to look.