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  • Remembering William MouldenVillanova University's Black Founder and Early Benefactor
  • Angelina Lincoln (bio)

Today, Villanova University's students attend classes on a campus secured partially thanks to the financial contributions of William Moulden, a Black man and former indentured servant who has been essentially forgotten by the university community. From his birth, in 1818, until he reached age twenty-eight, in 1846, William Moulden was legally owned by John Rudolph, per Pennsylvania's gradual abolition policy, which began the long process of ending slavery in the state in 1780. By the time of his 1894 death, however, Moulden had not only gained his freedom but had also married Julia Thomson, assisted in founding Villanova College and Monastery, purchased his own property, and, eventually, bequeathed his estate to the Augustinian College of Villanova.1 Though previous descriptions have remarked on the Mouldens' noteworthiness as the first Black Catholics who lived in the Villanova area, the family's relationship with Villanova's Augustinians was dynamic and complex. To fulfill Villanova University's aspirations of social justice and racial inclusivity, the school must work to better understand and fully acknowledge William Moulden's life and legacy as a Black founder.

Upon his death in 1893, William Moulden bequeathed his property to the Augustinian friars at Villanova, a religious order originally founded by St. Augustine of Hippo that first came to Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century. In 1899, when they sold the Moulden property on the outskirts of Philadelphia, they received $14,000. Despite the significance of William's gift, the Moulden family is neither well represented on campus nor the subject of serious scholarly inquiry. The university has officially acknowledged this important legacy only by naming one campus apartment building Moulden Hall and making a brief web page description of the Mouldens.2 Villanova's two published histories, one written in 1893 to commemorate the school's semicentennial and another in 1995 for its sesquicentennial, repeat a number of stories about the Moulden family that are limited by their lack of historical context. In both accounts, the Mouldens provide retrospective nostalgia about the university's humble beginnings as an institution intent on educating working-class Irish Catholics; William and Julia [End Page 22] add local flair to the narrative about Villanova's rise to national prominence. Neither publication explicitly connects the Mouldens' experiences to important moments in Pennsylvania's Black history, and neither of the official histories takes Moulden's financial gift to the struggling school seriously or considers the implications of a Black man giving his valuable estate to a school that would not have admitted his own children. Indeed, Villanova University continues to struggle to position itself as an institution committed to racial inclusivity. As one step toward this goal, the university must acknowledge William and Julia Moulden's experiences—their roles as founders, as laborers and employees, and as active members of the local Catholic community.

The first published description of the Moulden family came from Fr. Thomas C. Middleton's Historical Sketch of the Augustinian Monastery, College, and Mission of St. Thomas of Villanova: Delaware County, PA during the First Half Century of Their Existence, 1842–1892. This sketch, which gives an anecdotal account of the years leading up to the school's Golden Jubilee in 1892, was influenced by both Middleton's experiences and the Augustinian order's nostalgia. Middleton records, "William and Julia Moulden [were] the first known colored Catholics in the neighborhood. William had lived at Belle-Air since about 1833, and Julia in the neighborhood since girlhood. In 1841, Feb 21, they were married at Saint Denis', by Rev. Michael O'Connor…and their wedding dinner was given to them by Mrs. Rudolph in what is now the pantry." The next paragraph indicates that William and Julia Moulden attended Mass at St. Thomas of Villanova. Middleton's notes on the history of Villanova cite numerous conversations with local residents, including one mention of a conversation with Julia Moulden, in 1876, about the earliest Masses that Rudolph and then the Augustinians held on the property.3 This singular reference, in fact, marked the first conversation with a local resident recorded and dated in his...