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From indentured servant to university benefactor: This man’s $10,000 gift helped Villanova survive

Until Angelina Lincoln began researching the remarkable lives of William Moulden and his wife, Juliana, for her master’s degree, nearly everything that university administrators knew about them fit into a blurb on Villanova’s website.

Villanova graduate student Angelina Lincoln scoured the archives of Saint Thomas of Villanova monastery in researching the life of William Moulden, born an indentured servant, who left his $10,000 farm to the financially struggling school in the late-19th century.
Villanova graduate student Angelina Lincoln scoured the archives of Saint Thomas of Villanova monastery in researching the life of William Moulden, born an indentured servant, who left his $10,000 farm to the financially struggling school in the late-19th century.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

In her junior year at Villanova University, Angelina Lincoln lived across from a student apartment building called Moulden Hall.

Passing by the gray stone residence, she often wondered about its namesake. Never did she imagine someone so unlikely. Nor did she imagine that her postgraduate studies would be consumed by a man who, born to enslaved parents as an indentured servant, decided in 1886 to will his $10,000 farm to the school’s Augustinian friars.

In precarious times that saw Villanova forced twice to close its doors, William Moulden would help it survive.

His gift was forged in an "unlikely 30-year friendship between a black man and the priests he came to trust and a university built on that trust,” Lincoln wrote in a summary of her master’s degree research, titled “The Rooted Project.” “At a time when black men were losing ground, when their rights were slipping away and white men turned their backs on them, Moulden found some who did not.”

Until Lincoln began digging into the lives of Moulden and his wife, Juliana, nearly everything that university administrators knew about them fit into a blurb on Villanova’s website: They were the first known African American Catholics in the area, gave $200 toward construction of the first chapel on campus, and left their estate to the school.

But “she kept finding more and more," said the Rev. Peter Donohue, university president, "... more than anyone else at Villanova knew.”

Donohue had assumed that the land Moulden donated was the site of the family’s original, mid-19th century log cabin, where the law school stands today. Lincoln, however, discovered that he went on to purchase a three-acre farm two miles away on what is now Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr (occupied, in part, by a Qdoba restaurant).

Of that land, so precious to a freed black man, Moulden wrote in his will: “I give divise [sic] and bequeath unto my friend Reverend Francis M. Sheeran O.S.A.”

But that is only the end of the story.

Examining university ties to slavery

For the 23-year-old Lincoln, it began with a class assignment from history professor Judith Giesberg, asking students to explore whether Villanova ever had ties to slavery. Such revelations had shaken several other universities, including Georgetown and Dartmouth.

Lincoln could find no links. Instead, she encountered William Moulden. Her research, as follows, started in earnest last summer.

Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 set the course for Moulden’s life at the moment of his birth in Philadelphia in 1818. His parents had spent years in slavery on a Maryland plantation owned by the father of John Rudolph, a Philadelphia merchant who with his wife, Jane Lloyd Rudolph, bought an estate on what would be known as the Main Line. They called it Belle-Air.

Under the Abolition Act, people who were enslaved remained enslaved, but their children were born as indentured servants, bound as such until age 28. Moulden was one, and went to work at Belle-Air at 15.

In January 1842, with her husband dead and gone, Jane Rudolph sold the property to Augustinian priests, who later that year founded a university there. She asked them to allow Moulden and his new wife — known to have grown up in Radnor, raised by a Quaker woman — to remain on the land as farmers. She also manumitted him, releasing him from servitude, when he turned 26, two years earlier than the law required.

For five years, he and Juliana worked the school’s soil. They started a family, which would grow to 13 children, and still squirreled away enough money to buy land down the road.

By 1870, the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments — the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had ended slavery and defined citizenship for all people born in the United States. The Mouldens could ride Philadelphia’s street cars with white people, and William could vote. Under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875, black Americans could sue if denied access to public establishments, such as theaters, restaurants, and hotels.

Rising racial tensions

Yet, as the Reconstruction Era neared its formal close in 1877, when the last government troops would withdraw from the South, simmering white resentment of black progress was beginning to boil.

“After Reconstruction ended, there was a backlash from whites, even in the North," said Lincoln. Moulden was wise enough to “take the temperature” of the times, and feared for his family’s safety.

He was justified, Lincoln said. She cited reports by pioneering black newspaper woman Ida B. Wells, who wrote that “between 1884 and 1892, 728 black men were brutally murdered by their white neighbors, often as a result of black economic success and property ownership.”

Newspapers in the North, including the New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, fueled tensions merely through the words they used, Lincoln found. In 1886, when a black man named Jack Mingo was lynched in Eatontown, N.J., The Inquirer labeled him “the brute.”

In Lower Merion, Moulden was well-aware of what was happening around him.

In 1885, after a white farmer named John Sharpless was murdered, several black men were rounded up and held for questioning. The next year, a black woman, Catherine Taswell, was killed. No one was charged.

Moulden was “no fool,” Lincoln said. "He knew his neighbors well enough to be wary of what might happen after he was gone.”

So, in 1886, unable to read or write, he asked Sheeran, the school’s president, to compose a will leaving his farm to the Augustinians. He used his mark to sign it. But there was a stipulation. By then, all that remained of his family were Juliana and two adult children, William Celestine and Mary. The friars would have to protect them and permit them "to remain upon and occupy the house in which I now reside.”

But Juliana preceded him death, in 1888. Two years later, in an article recounting a much-talked-about murder in the area, The Inquirer claimed she had once spread rumors about the crime, and described her as “an ignorant and half-witted negro woman."

Moulden himself died in 1893. When Mary, the last of his progeny, followed in 1898, the Augustinians sold the property and used the proceeds to grow their university.

“Well-timed gifts from friends and relations saved it repeatedly," Lincoln wrote. “Gifts like Moulden’s.”

Nearly a century later, in 1994, a stone residence was built on West Campus. Its signage said only “Moulden Hall,” leaving students such as Angelina Lincoln to wonder.

The work goes on

On a recent day, Lincoln stood in the cemetery of St. Denis Roman Catholic Church in nearby Havertown, deciphering time-worn words on the headstones of William and Juliana and some of their 13 children, the last generation of Mouldens. One had lived a year, another 12, another 16, and so on.

She has scoured archives of the St. Thomas of Villanova monastery and Delaware and Montgomery Counties, and she is far from done.

The Miami native, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and history in 2018, will receive her master’s this summer. Both professor Giesberg and president Donohue say they’d like the university to fund an extended stay because, as Giesberg put it, “we haven’t told the full story” yet.

Lincoln’s thought, exactly.

“I want to take the time to do it well,” she said. “I want to do the family justice.”