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  • Urban Slavery at WorkThe Bellamy Mansion Compound, Wilmington, North Carolina
  • Catherine W. Bishir (bio)


In swirling script William Benjamin Gould wrote his initials in the wet plaster, making his mark on the fresh product of his craft, a section of ornately molded ceiling cornice (Figure 1). In 1860 Gould and his fellow plasterers were putting the finishing touches on the Bellamy House in Wilmington, North Carolina (Figure 2). Soon the men attached that section of cornice to the ceiling, concealing Gould’s inscription from view for more than a century. Not until the end of the twentieth century were Gould’s initials seen again and recognized as those of one of the many enslaved artisans who built and finished the grand, columned mansion.1

Besides revealing Gould’s hand, his initials suggest the complexity of the Bellamy House in both the story of its construction and the nature of its design. The construction and finishing of the entire compound depended on the skills and labor of enslaved and free men of color whose identities and roles have been rediscovered only recently. Moreover, just as the enslaved artisan’s initials lay hidden behind the public face of the ornate plaster, so the imposing public facades conceal the deeper character of a house and complex planned for discreet, enslaved domestic service.

Although it is well known that black artisans were involved in construction during the antebellum period and that many slave-owning families planned their houses to accommodate enslaved service, the example of the Bellamy House encapsulates these important patterns in especially vivid and specific detail. Because of the survival of the house and its slave quarters and grounds, together with memoirs and documents recalling both the construction and use of the house, the Bellamy Mansion offers an unusually rich individual story of urban slavery at work.2

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Figure 1.

WBG initials. The initials were inscribed by enslaved plasterer William Benjamin Gould on the back of ornamental plaster moldings. Courtesy of the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and design Arts, Wilmington

In 1860 Wilmington was the principal port and, with a population of almost 10,000, the largest city in North Carolina (Figure 3). Located on a bluff above the Cape Fear River, it was also the trade and political center of the Lower Cape Fear region. The city had strong connections with northern American cities, England, and the Caribbean Islands, as well as with river ports up the Cape Fear. Slaves working on the plantations of the Lower Cape Fear raised rice for export plus beans and peas and livestock for local consumption and export, but the big money came from the naval stores industry. Thousands of workers, chiefly slaves, extracted tar, pitch, and turpentine from the immense forests of longleaf pine for [End Page 13] world export. With trade connections including Great Britain, New England, New York, Philadelphia, and the Caribbean Islands, the city was the world’s largest export market for naval stores, and after 1840 railroad connections enhanced its fortunes and spurred immigration and population growth.3

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Figure 2.

William Benjamin Gould. Gould accomplished some of the decorative plastering at the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington and after the Civil War practiced his trade in Massachusetts. Courtesy of William B. Gould IV and the Bellamy Mansion Museum.

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Figure 3.

Bird’s-eye view of Wilmington, North Carolina, from Fourth Street. Photograph circa 1873, by Rufus Morgan. The foreground shows two of the city’s typical Italianate-style houses and the variety of fences and outbuildings in the yards. In the background are visible (at left) the spire of First Baptist Church and (near center) the observatory of the Bellamy Mansion. Courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

As in other cities in the American South, people of color, including many enslaved workers and a few free people, took central roles in the city’s life—guiding the boats on the Cape Fear River down to the sea and upriver to Fayetteville at the head of navigation, loading and unloading goods at...


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