PHILADELPHIA – 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.
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 black 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 now stands. Lincoln, however, discovered that he went on to purchase a 3-acre farm 2 miles away. Of that land, so precious to a freed black man, Moulden wrote in his will: "I give divise and bequeath unto my friend Reverend Francis M. Sheeran O.S.A."
But that is only the end of the story.
For Lincoln, 23, it began with a class assignment from history professor Judith Giesberg, asking students to explore whether Villanova ever had ties to slavery.
Lincoln could find no links. Instead, she encountered William Moulden. Her research started in earnest last summer.
Moulden was an indentured servant on an estate known as Belle-Aire. When the owner died, she sold the property to Augustinian priests, who later that year founded a university there. She asked them to allow Moulden and his wife 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.
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.
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."
Moulden died in 1893. When Mary, the last of his progeny, followed in 1898, the Augustinians sold the property and used the proceeds to expand.
"Well-timed gifts from friends and relations saved it repeatedly," Lincoln wrote. "Gifts like Moulden's."