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Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell

Black Women in America

V. P. Franklin

Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell 

(b. 1 January 1898; d. 1 November 1989), lawyer and civil rights activist.

Alexander, the first black woman to earn a PhD in Economics, in a 1981 interview provided this advice for young black men and women: “Don’t let anything stop you. There will be times when you’ll be disappointed, but you can’t stop. Make yourself the best that you can make out of what you are. The very best.”

Sadie Tanner Mossell was born into a prominent Philadelphia family. Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell, had been the first African American to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Her grandfather, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a well-known author, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the editor of the country’s first African American scholarly journal, the African Methodist Episcopal Review. The famous painter Henry Ossawa Tanner was her uncle. At the turn of the century, the Tanner home was a gathering place and intellectual center for the black community.

Alexander, Sadie Tanner MossellClick to view larger

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander,

photographed in 1921 in her graduation dress. She was (in 1927) the first African American woman to enter the bar in Pennsylvania, where she continued to practice law until age eighty-five. From the Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives

Mossell was educated in the public schools of Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In 1915 she graduated from M Street (later Dunbar) High School and was awarded a scholarship to Howard University. However, her mother, Mary Louise Tanner Mossell, was convinced that opportunities for graduate training would be better if her daughter received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Mossell went along with her mother’s wishes, and, although she found her college course work to be extremely difficult, she graduated with a BS degree with honors in education in 1918, completing a four-year program in three years. She continued her studies, in economics, and obtained an MA degree in 1919, became a Frances Sergeant Pepper Fellow, and earned a PhD in economics from the Wharton School in 1921. Only one day later than Georgiana Simpson, she became the second African American woman in the United States to receive a doctoral degree and the first to receive a PhD in economics.

Finding employment that measured up to her abilities and qualifications was her next challenge. Mossell found that her PhD was useless in the job market and did not enable her to secure a job at any of the large white insurance companies. Despite excellent recommendations from her professors, no one would hire an African American woman, even in positions for which she was clearly overqualified. Her professors threatened, to no avail, not to refer any other students to the insurance companies unless she was hired. Mossell decided to utilize her minor in insurance and actuarial science to take a position as assistant actuary for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, an African American firm in Durham. She remained there for two years, until she returned to Philadelphia in 1923 to marry her college sweetheart, Raymond Pace Alexander, who had just finished Harvard University Law School.

Sadie Alexander abhorred domestic life, and after twelve months, she expressed her discontent to her husband. When asked what she would rather do, she replied that she wanted to go to law school. In September 1924, she entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School and quickly earned honors and became a member of the Law Review Board. Upon graduation in June 1927, she became the first African American woman to enter the bar and practice law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She and her husband entered into private practice as one of the earliest husband-wife legal teams in the United States. The partnership lasted until her husband became a judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 1959. Alexander was appointed assistant city solicitor for Philadelphia, serving from 1928 to 1930 and from 1934 to 1938. Returning to private practice, she specialized in probate law, divorce, and domestic relations matters. In 1925 she and her husband were among the founders of the National Bar Association, the professional organization for African American lawyers.

During the 1920s and 1930s the Alexanders were personally responsible for ending overt discrimination against black Americans in Philadelphia hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Tired of sitting in the “coloreds only” sections of movie houses and theaters, they helped to draft the 1935 Pennsylvania state public accommodations law, which prohibited discrimination in public places. Following its passage, the Alexanders tested the law at a Philadelphia theater that refused to admit African Americans. They made several attempts to gain admittance but were turned away each time by the manager; they had him arrested and, after several nights in jail, the manager relented. The Alexanders used the same technique to end discrimination in several of the city’s hotels and restaurants.

During the 1940s, the Alexanders pressed for the hiring of African Americans on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and for the integration of the U.S. armed forces. In 1946 President Harry S. Truman appointed Sadie Alexander to the Commission to Study the Civil Rights of All Races and Faiths, on which she served until 1948. The commission’s report, To Secure These Rights (1948), recommended the desegregation of the armed services, which was accomplished in 1949. Alexander also served on President John F. Kennedy’s Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law in 1963 and was chair of President Jimmy Carter’s White House Conference on Aging in 1979 and 1980.

Alexander also held a number of other important professional positions throughout her distinguished career. Between 1919 and 1923 she served as the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She maintained a long association with the American Civil Liberties Union and for twenty-five years served as a national secretary for the National Urban League. For most of the 1950s and 1960s she was a member of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and for a time she served as the chair. For several years she served as chair of, and the only female on, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s subcommittee on human rights.

Alexander received many awards and honors. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970. She received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, Drexel University, Lincoln University, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania. On 15 April 1980, she received the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1987 the Philadelphia Bar Association named its public service center in her honor.

Alexander practiced law in Philadelphia until she was eighty-five years old. She died on 1 November 1989, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and pneumonia. She died in her home in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, where she had lived since 1983.

In her 1981 interview, Alexander summarized her career and approach to life by declaring, “I haven’t worked for the money. There’s only so much you can eat, and you can only sleep in one bed—but I always wanted to do something where you can contribute something.”

See also Legal Profession.


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    Davis, Marianna W. Contributions of Black Women to America. Columbia, SC: Kenday Press, 1982.Find this resource:

      Franklin, V. P. The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community, 1900-1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.Find this resource:

        Greenlee, Marcia McAdoo. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander. Interview 26 January 1977. Black Women Oral History Project, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.Find this resource:

          Polak, Maralyn Lois. Sadie Alexander: At Eighty-three, a Woman for Any Age. Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, 29 March 1981.Find this resource:

            Wilson, Francille Rusan. ‘All of the Glory...Faded...Quickly’: Sadie T. M. Alexander and Black Professional Women, 1920-1950. In Sister Circle: Black Women and Work, edited by Sharon Harley and the Black Women and Work Collective. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

              Archival Sources

              Papers and documents of the Alexander family are at the University of Pennsylvania, University Archives and Record Center.

              V. P. Franklin