Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell

views updated

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

A trailblazing African American who dedicated much of her life to civil rights causes, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989) was the first black American to earn a doctorate in economics and the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The descendent of an extraordinarily accomplished family of scholars and professionals, Alexander was a dedicated civil rights activist and in 1921 became the first black American to receive a doctorate in economics. She later became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. President Harry S Truman appointed her to his new Civil Rights Commission in 1946, and in 1948 she helped lay the foundation for a national civil rights policy by coauthoring the Commission's report, "To Secure These Rights." She believed that the United States could remain a strong democracy only if people of all races and backgrounds were given opportunities to improve themselves.

Early Life

Alexander was born Sadie Tanner Mossell on January 2, 1898, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She and her older sister and younger brother were among the fifth generation of what the U.S. Census termed "free Negroes." Her father, Aaron Mossell, had been the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and worked as a lawyer. Alexander's old and distinguished family had a strong background of academic, artistic, and professional achievement and included doctors, lawyers, church and hospital founders, authors, and activists.

Alexander's parents separated when she was still a child, and they began alternating residences between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. She later surmised, as recorded in the Alexander family papers, that her mother had been "terribly embarrassed" to be alone with two children and scaling back from what had been a quite comfortable standard of living. For the next several years her mother suffered from debilitating episodes of "emotional sickness," and Alexander moved back to Washington, living with her aunt and uncle, Lewis Moore, who then was dean of Howard University. She graduated from the capital's M Street (now Dunbar) High School and expected to attend Howard University in the fall of 1915, since she had won a scholarship there and had come to love the beautiful campus. However, her mother had enrolled her at the University of Pennsylvania School of Education instead, so Alexander began her academic studies there.

Academic Achievements Belied Personal Difficulties

Alexander graduated with honors in just three years, but later recalled that even the few other women, all whites, attending the school would never speak to her. As a new student, her requests for directions and other help were usually met with cold stares from fellow students and the school cafeteria and nearby restaurants refused to serve her. Even the dean of the Law School refused to speak with her and forbade the other female students to study with her. In fact, when Alexander qualified to be on staff of the school's law review, the dean canceled her selection. However, Alexander used her strong religious faith, family support, and personal courage to continue along her chosen path. Her membership in the predominantly black sorority Delta Sigma Theta helped to ease the loneliness.

In 1918 Alexander started her graduate education in economics at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School. She earned her economics doctorate there in 1921 with a thesis titled "The Standard of Living among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia," in which she sought to "arrive at conclusions concerning the migrants in Philadelphia, through an intensive analysis of the budgets of a small number of their group." Both investigative and descriptive, the work was an important documentation of the plight of such migrant families and helped draw attention to ways in which they could be helped. In earning her Ph.D. in economics Alexander became the first black American woman to do so; another black woman, Georgiana Simpson, had received a Ph.D. in another subject from the University of Chicago a day earlier, making Simpson the first American black woman ever to earn a doctorate.

Although her academic credentials were impeccable, Alexander had no luck finding work at the University of Pennsylvania or at Howard University. She decided to move to Durham, North Carolina, where she took a job as assistant actuary with the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Alexander worked there until 1923, enduring great resentment from other blacks because she was northern born and northern educated.

She eventually returned to Philadelphia to marry Harvard Law School graduate Raymond Pace Alexander, the wedding taking place on November 29, 1923. At age 25, Alexander was a good deal past the usual age for marriage at that time. She spent the next year at home in the traditional role of housewife, but became increasingly dissatisfied with her new life. Finally, at Raymond's urging, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she helped to found the National Bar Association (NBA), a black organization that parallels the American Bar Association. She also worked as a contributor and associate editor on the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and earned a law degree in 1927. She was the first black woman to graduate from the university's law school; her father had been the first black ever to do so in 1888.

Began Career in Law and Increased Activism

A woman whose life continued to be comprised of many firsts, Alexander passed the bar exam with ease, becoming the first woman of any race to do so, and then went to work for her husband's new law firm, making her the first woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. She became a specialist in family and estate law, and impressed her colleagues and clients with her thoroughness and her knowledge of the fine points of that body of law. In 1928 she also worked as assistant city solicitor for the City of Philadelphia, adding another first to her portfolio. Alexander remained in that position until 1930, and then returned from 1934 to 1938. Meanwhile, in 1932 she took charge of the John Mercer Langston Law Club, a professional and social group for black lawyers in the city. Alexander used that group's resources and connections to create a legal aid bureau to help blacks with little money in their efforts to navigate the legal system. After suffering two miscarriages, Alexander also gave birth to two daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Rae, in 1934 and 1937, respectively, and hired a nurse to care for the children while she worked. Alexander believed that women were capable of being professionals and good mothers simultaneously, and fought for women's rights on that issue.

Since 1930, Alexander had been a driving force in the National Urban League, a community-based movement seeking to empower African Americans to enter the economic, social, and cultural mainstream, and she served as its secretary for 25 years. The Alexanders' law firm continued to do well, even moving in 1934 to an upscale commercial district formerly closed to blacks. Much of the firm's work involved cases related to the desegregation of public spaces in Philadelphia, such as movie theaters, hotels, and restaurants. In 1943 Alexander took office as the first female secretary of the NBA, holding this office for four years. She also began serving in 1946 as one of the driving members of the Philadelphia Fellowship Committee, the purpose of which was to find ways to increase the equality of blacks in the city. She remained in that position until 1965. Her strong participation in the national committee of the American Civil Liberties Union lasted from 1948 to 1982.

Hard Work, Commitment brought National Recognition

In 1948, Alexander received a phone call from the White House informing her that U.S. President Harry S Truman had appointed her to his Committee on Civil Rights. She accepted, and began spending a fair amount of time on that work. Her job was to help prepare a report on the state of civil rights for blacks and suggest ways to improve the volatile situation. In an interview soon after the report's release, Alexander told an interviewer for the New York Times, "We must act now because the gap between what we believe as American ideals and what we practice is creating a moral dry rot within us. We are threatening the emotional and rational bases of our democracy." Later that year, the National Urban League named Alexander Woman of the Year in its Negro Heroes comic book, a publication aimed at black youngsters that emphasized the value of education, perseverance, and training in promoting equality for African Americans.

The Alexanders closed their private practice in 1959 when Raymond was appointed a judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Alexander then opened her own law offices and continued to focus her skills on family law cases, especially those involving divorce, adoption, and childcare. About one-quarter of her work was civil and probate work, and she never turned away anyone with a valid case just because they could not pay her.

Throughout the 1960s, despite her busy schedule of law cases, Alexander remained powerfully committed to numerous civil causes, serving as chairperson for the Commission for Human Relations in Philadelphia for five years and working tirelessly for the Philadelphia Bar Association. However, when Raymond died in 1974, she retreated somewhat from her hectic schedule.

Left Private Practice

Alexander closed her law offices after Raymond's death and joined the law firm of Atkinson, Myers, and Archie in 1976. She served as counsel there until 1982, when, beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, she retired from the law and from public life in general. President Jimmy Carter had appointed her as chairperson of his White House Conference on Aging in 1978, and she continued to serve in that capacity until President Ronald Reagan removed her from office in 1981, just before the conference occurred. Alexander died of pneumonia on November 1, 1989 at her home in Philadelphia.


Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1989.

New York Times, November 8, 1989.


"About the Center: The Early Years," University of Pennsylvania Center for Africana Studies, (January 8, 2005).

"Alexander Family Papers," University of Pennsylvania Archives,–stma.html (January 8, 2005).

"Black History Month 2002: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989)," American Bar Association,–sa.html (January 7, 2005).

"Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989)," Stanford Law School Library, (November 13, 1997).

Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell

views updated

Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell

January 2, 1898
November 1, 1989

Sadie T. M. Alexander was a pioneer among African-American women in law and education and a committed civil rights activist. She was born Sadie Tanner Mossell in Philadelphia, to an accomplished family: Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, among the most prominent of nineteenth-century black clergymen, was her grandfather, and the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner was her uncle. Educated in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C., she graduated from the M Street High School (now Dunbar High School) in Washington. She entered the University of Pennsylvania's School of Education in 1915, receiving a B.S. in education with honors in 1918. (That year, she helped found the Gamma Chapter of the Delta Theta Sorority.) She earned an M.A. (1919) and a Ph.D. in economics (1921) from the University of Pennsylvania and was one of the first two African-American women to earn a Ph.D. in the United States and the first African American to receive a doctorate in economics.

From 1921 to 1923 Alexander was an assistant actuary for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, a black-owned company in Durham, North Carolina. On November 29, 1923, she married Raymond Pace Alexander, a graduate of Harvard Law School, who thereafter worked with his wife in numerous Philadelphia-area civil rights cases. Sadie Alexander continued to be a trailblazer for African-American women in the fields of law and education: She entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1924 (where her father, Aaron Albert Mossell, had graduated in 1888, becoming the first African American to graduate from the law school), worked on the law review, and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar after graduating in 1927. During the late 1920s and 1930s she served as the assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia and as a partner in her husband's law firm. In November 1943 Alexander became the first woman to be elected secretary (or to hold any office) in the National Bar Association, a position she held until 1947.

In addition to her personal achievements and triumphs in overcoming racial barriers, for over half a century Sadie Alexander was at the forefront of the movement for civil rights for African Americans. In the 1920s and 1930s she and her husband successfully challenged discrimination in public accommodations in Pennsylvania. She also worked to integrate the University of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Armed Forces. On December 5, 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed her to the President's Commission on Civil Rights. She helped prepare its report, "To Secure These Rights" (1948), which was influential in the formulation of civil rights policy in the years that followed. Alexander worked with her husband until 1959, when he was appointed judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and she began her own law practice. In 1976 she joined the law firm of Atkinson, Myers, Archie & Wallace as counsel, advising the firm on a part-time basis in estate and family law. Alzheimer's disease forced her retirement in 1982. She died in Philadelphia seven years later.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.


Dannett, Sylvia G. L. Profiles of Negro Womanhood, vol. 3: 20th Century. Yonkers, N.Y.: Educational Heritage, 1966.

Malveaux, Julianne. "Missed Opportunity: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and the Economic Profession." American Economic Review 81, no. 2 (March 1991): 307310.

siraj ahmed (1996)

premilla nadasen (1996)

About this article

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic