Sadie Alexander

Aug 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism
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Sadie Alexander1898-1989  Sadie Mossell Alexander distinguished herself as a civil rights leader, accomplished lawyer, and political activist through academic excellence and personal endurance. She became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the United States, and helped create opportunities for underprivileged Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement.

A Scholar and Lawyer

Alexander was born in Philadelphia in 1898 into a prominent family. Her mother was Mary Louise Tanner, and her father, Aaron Albert Mossell, Jr., was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Law School. Alexander would become the first black woman to do the same. Her maternal uncle, Henry O. Tanner, was a renowned painter and activist, and her maternal aunt, Dr. Hallie Tanner Johnson, was the first woman permitted to practice medicine in Alabama. Alexander’s paternal uncle, Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell, was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s Medical School, and he co-founded Philadelphia’s Frederick Douglass Hospital in 1895, now called Mercy-Douglass.

Alexander’s father abandoned the family in 1899, however, and she moved with her mother to Washington, DC. The family often traveled between the Washington residence and her grandparents’ home in Philadelphia during her childhood. Her mother eventually returned to Philadelphia, but by that time, Alexander was ensconced at Washington’s M Street High School. During this period, she lived with her uncle, Dr. Louis Baxter Moore, who was the Dean of Howard University Law School. After high school, she attended Penn’s School of Education, graduating in 1918 with honors in only three years. During her undergraduate studies, she helped found the gamma chapter of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and served a term as the sorority’s first national president in 1921.

In 1919, Alexander secured a master’s degree from Penn in economics and was awarded the Francis Sergeant Pepper Fellowship in that field. During her years at Penn, she also met her future husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, who was an undergraduate student there. Alexander pursued a doctoral program at Penn, and in 1921, earned her Ph.D. She received this degree in economics and titled her dissertation, The Standard of Living Among 100 Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia. Alexander had difficulty finding work in Philadelphia despite her qualifications, and relocated to Durham, North Carolina, where she worked as an actuary for the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. She remained there until 1923 when she returned to Philadelphia and married Raymond Alexander. Her husband had graduated from the Wharton School at Penn in 1920 and from Harvard Law School in 1923. When Alexander returned to Philadelphia to join him, he had just opened his own practice, specializing in criminal law. The following year, Alexander enrolled in Penn’s Law School and emerged with a law degree in 1927, making her the first black woman to graduate from the school. Soon, she earned the additional distinction of being the first black woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. During her studies in law school, she served as associate editor of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

Alexander joined her husband’s law firm and specialized in estate and family law. Her groundbreaking record as a successful African American woman continued when she was appointed Assistant City Solicitor of Philadelphia in 1928, making her the first black woman to hold this position. She served in this capacity until 1930, and again from 1934 until 1938. Alexander continued to serve on numerous local and national boards throughout the 1930s, often holding an officer’s position. This would lead to roles as a civic activist and social and political leader.

A Humanitarian and Activist

Alexander’s legal career gained attention in 1943 when she became the first woman to be elected secretary of the National Bar Association, a group representing the interests of black lawyers (The American Bar Association did not allow Blacks until the 1950s). In 1946, she became a leader in the John Mercer Langston Law Club, a professional organization for black lawyers in Philadelphia. Under her direction, the group was instrumental in aiding Blacks who needed legal guidance but could not afford it. She was the only female African American lawyer in this group.

One of Alexander’s most extraordinary achievements came in 1947 when President Harry S. Truman appointed her to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The group’s noted document, To Secure These Rights, became the official report on strengthening and protecting civil rights for Americans. She made humanitarian efforts locally as well, serving on the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia from 1952 until 1968. Alexander continued to work for her husband’s law practice until 1959, often serving as an advocate in race discrimination cases. She continued to practice until 1976, while maintaining influential positions in the National Urban League, the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission, and the National Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alexander was graced with many distinctions including honorary Doctor of Law degrees from Penn, Lincoln University, and Swarthmore College. President Jimmy Carter appointed her, at age 82, chairperson of the White House Conference on Aging in 1978 where she addressed the social and economic needs of the elderly, and became the first black woman to serve on a presidential commission. Alexander retired from her law practice and from public life in 1982. She died in November 1989, at the age of 91.

Alexander is most remembered as a distinguished citizen of Philadelphia, an accomplished attorney who sought justice for the underprivileged, and as a humanitarian and political activist. She holds myriad honors as the first African American woman to succeed in several areas of academia and social activism. Alexander is quoted as saying, “…I never looked for anybody to hold the door open for me. I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down; because I knocked all of them down.”


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