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Cornell Law panel focuses on lives of two former slaves

William B. Gould
Chris Kitchen/Provided
William B. Gould IV, LLB ’61, the Charles Beardsley Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, speaks Sept. 25 at Cornell. Kevin Clermont, the Robert D. Ziff Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, listens in the background.

Cornell University has a long, rich history. As more research is done, more stories of diverse Cornellians begin to surface, such as Cornell’s ties to two former slaves, one of whom was recently discovered to be the first African-American graduate of the university.

Kevin Clermont, the Robert D. Ziff Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, and William B. Gould IV, LLB ‘61, the Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law at Stanford University, shared the stories of two former slaves with ties to the university on campus Sept. 25. Kevin Gaines, the W.E.B Du Bois Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell, moderated the discussion.

Gaines said the speakers’ books – Clermont’s The Indomitable George Washington Fields: From Slave to Attorney” and Gould’s “Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor” – are of particular importance because both works “record the voices of former slaves.”

Clermont described his connection with George Washington Fields as “pure fortuity, pure serendipity.” While taking a break from proofreading a new book he had written, Clermont found a thesis written by a student named George Washington Fields from “the Cornell Law School class of 1890 entitled ‘Trial by Jury.’” Checking the Cornell Alumni News, Clermont found Washington Fields’ obituary from 1932.

This is where Clermont found “a strange sentence about the colored population in Hampton, Virginia.” It “was a bizarre thing to appear in an obituary because [he] knew the man was white” due to the Cornell Law School’s pride in its first African-American graduate, Eugene Kinckle Jones ‘36. By using the 1930 census – where George Washington Fields was listed as “Negro” – Clermont confirmed “that the first African-American graduate of Cornell Law School graduated 46 years earlier than previously thought,” he said.

Gould IV had a different relationship with his subject, William B. Gould I, his great grandfather, who was born in 1837. His story begins with “the discovery of a diary in the summer of 1958,” Gould IV said, “the year that [he] entered Cornell Law School.” Gould IV’s father discovered two volumes of the diary in the attic, which date from September 1862 until September 1865, with a four month gap in that span. “This diary took me through a long process,” Gould IV confessed.

The diary led Gould IV to the Pension Papers, in which he said “very often Civil War veterans filed when they sought pensions because of injuries occurring during the war,” – his great grandfather, who served in the United States Navy, included.

“I didn’t know whether he was free or a slave,” Gould continues, “and I didn’t find any evidence he was enslaved until I found the log of the ship which said, ‘A contraband came on board.’”

Sarah Zumba ’18 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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