Raymond Pace Alexander
Raymond Pace Alexander (October 13, 1897 – November 24, 1974) was a civil rights leader, lawyer, politician, and the first African American judge appointed to the Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas. After graduation from Harvard Law School in 1923, Alexander became one of the leading civil rights attorneys in Philadelphia. He represented black defendants in high-profile cases, including the Trenton Six, a group of black men arrested for murder in Trenton, New Jersey. Alexander also entered the political realm, running for judge several times before being elected to a seat on the Philadelphia City Council in 1951. After two terms in that office, Alexander was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas, where he served until his death in 1974.
Early life and education
Alexander was born into a working-class black family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 1897. His parents, like many African Americans in the 1860s and 1870s, had left the rural South looking for economic opportunities and an escape from the violence that accompanied Jim Crow. His father, Hillard Boone Alexander, was born a slave in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and migrated to Philadelphia with his brother, Samuel, in 1880. That same year, Raymond’s mother, Virginia Pace, also migrated to Philadelphia with her brother, John Schollie Pace; they had been born slaves in Essex County, Virginia. Hillard and Virginia married in Philadelphia in 1882.
The family, like most of the city’s black population, lived in the Seventh Ward (what is now the western part of Center City). His father and uncle were "riding masters" who gave horseback riding lessons to wealthy white people in Philadelphia. But by 1915, the emergence of the automobile era led the business to decline and ultimately fail.
In 1909, Alexander's mother died of pneumonia. Although Alexander immediately began working to help support the family, his father felt unable to provide adequate care for the children and sent Alexander and his three siblings (including his sister Virginia) to live with their aunt and uncle, Georgia and John Pace, in a growing black community in North Philadelphia. The Paces were a working-class family as well. With even more mouths to feed, Alexander continued working through grade school and high school to help support himself and his siblings. Jobs he held during those years included working on the docks unloading fish, selling newspapers, and owning a bootblack stand where he worked six days per week. Alexander also worked at the Metropolitan Opera House in North Philadelphia for six years, beginning when he was 16 years old. Later, looking back on his time at the Opera House, Alexander said that it had "opened a new world for me," and he credited that environment with giving him "some of the smoothness and culture which characterizes my later years."
Alexander attended Central High School and graduated in 1917, delivering a speech "The Future of the American Negro," at the commencement ceremony. Alexander attended the University of Pennsylvania on a merit scholarship and became the first black graduate of the Wharton School of Business in 1920. He then enrolled at Harvard Law School. While there, Alexander supported himself by working as a teaching assistant during the school year. In the summers, he took classes for a master's degree in political science at Columbia University and worked as a porter for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. While still in law school, Alexander brought his first discrimination lawsuit, suing Madison Square Garden for refusing him entry on account of his race, a violation of New York's equal rights law. As he was not yet barred, Alexander hired an attorney to represent him.
Alexander graduated from Harvard Law in 1923. That same year, he married his former Penn classmate Sadie Tanner Mossell. Mossell was the granddaughter of Benjamin Tucker Tanner and in 1927 would become the first black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. They would have two daughters, Rae and Mary. He passed the Pennsylvania bar exam in 1923, becoming one of a few black lawyers in the state. Despite his credentials, Alexander had difficulty finding a job in Philadelphia after graduation. Ultimately, he took a position in the law office of John R.K. Scott, a white Republican former Congressman with a small office in the city. Shortly thereafter, he opened his own office with a focus on representing black people.
He soon rose to prominence in Philadelphia's black community. In 1924, he represented Louise Thomas, a black woman accused of murdering a black policeman. After she was convicted and sentenced to death, Alexander secured her a new trial at which she was found not guilty, a first in Pennsylvania legal history. That same year, he filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against a movie theater owner in Philadelphia who refused admission to black ticketholders. He lost the case, but it nonetheless raised his profile as a black lawyer willing to fight for equal rights. Around this time, Alexander began to identify with the black intellectual "New Negro" movement, which advocated self-help, racial pride, and protest against injustice. He also joined the National Bar Association (NBA), an association of black lawyers that had formed when its founding members were denied membership in the American Bar Association. Through the NBA, Alexander began to use political protest as well as legal action in the struggle for equal rights. His firm, which now included his wife and Maceo W. Hubbard, relocated to a new building at 19th and Chestnut Streets.
Berwyn desegregation case
In 1932, Alexander became involved with efforts to desegregate the schools in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. After Easttown Township built a new elementary school, neighboring Tredyffrin Township closed their school and paid to send their students to Easttown (the Berwyn region included parts of both townships). Easttown converted their older, smaller school building into one "for the instruction of certain people", which in practice meant all black students in the district, segregating the previously integrated schools. As a result, 212 African-American students began to boycott the public schools. The families hired Alexander to press the issue in court.
With the assistance of the NAACP, Alexander negotiated with the school board to end the boycott, but the stalemate dragged on into 1933. Tensions increased as the state Attorney General, William A. Schnader, ordered the black parents prosecuted for refusing to send their children to school. Some refused to pay bail and stayed in prison as a protest. Alexander approved of the strategy, while the NAACP thought it too confrontational; they also objected to Alexander's acceptance of help from International Labor Defense lawyers, fearing association with the far-left group.
As the boycott dragged on into 1934, groups organized protest marches in Philadelphia. Schnader, now running for governor, promised to find a solution. Alexander and others credited Schnader's conversion to his recognition of the growing influence of black voters in Pennsylvania. By June, the school board agreed to allow students to be admitted to the two schools on a race-neutral basis, and the parents ended their boycott. The following year, the state passed a strengthened equal rights bill that covered all public accommodations, including schools, and allowed private lawyers to sue segregated businesses. It was introduced by state representative Hobson R. Reynolds, a black Republican from Philadelphia.
Alexander rose to national prominence in the black legal community after the Berwyn case, and he began to speak around the country at NBA events, serving as the organization's president from 1933 to 1935. In 1942, he represented Thomas Mattox, a black teenager, as Mattox fought extradition to Georgia where he was accused of assaulting a white man. Alexander argued that Mattox would not receive a fair trial in the South, and the judge agreed, quashing the extradition attempt. He also represented Corrine Sykes, a 23-year-old black maid who was charged with murdering her white employer. This time, Alexander was unsuccessful, as the jury disregarded his arguments that Sykes was mentally impaired and found her guilty; after appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States were denied, Sykes was executed in 1946.
In 1948, Alexander became involved with the case of the Trenton Six, a group of black men arrested in Trenton, New Jersey, accused of robbery and murder. Trenton police induced confessions from five of the six, and all were convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. The Civil Rights Congress (CRC), the legal arm of the Communist Party USA, represented three of the men during their appeal; the NAACP, at the request of their chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, hired Alexander to represent two of the others. In 1949, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the men a new trial but prohibited the CRC from representing any of the defendants because they found that the group had unfairly influenced jury pools through the news media.
In the 1951 re-trial, Alexander proved that the police had manufactured evidence in order to secure a quick conviction and quiet public concerns about the crime wave then rippling through Trenton. The judge also ruled out the confessions, which were proved to have been coerced. After a lengthy trial, four were acquitted and two convicted, with the jury recommending life imprisonment. Though not a complete victory, Alexander had proved his skill as a lawyer and saved the lives of his clients, while managing to distance himself from the CRC and other communist groups, an important consideration in the Cold War atmosphere.
Political and judicial career
Seeking a judicial nomination
By the 1930s, Alexander's civil rights activity led him to become involved in local politics. At that time, Republicans dominated Philadelphia's political scene, and Alexander ran for a seat on the Court of Common Pleas as a Republican in 1933, but withdrew before the election, a decision the Philadelphia Tribune reported was due to ill health. He grew frustrated with the Republican party organization, which offered only the lowest-level city patronage jobs to blacks. Nonetheless, he saw the Republicans as the best chance for African-American advancement in the city and lobbied the party leaders to nominate a black lawyer—preferably him—for one of the judicial seats up for election in 1937. He found little support, and lost the primary election to the three party-endorsed candidates: Byron A. Milner, Clare G. Fenerty, and John Robert Jones. This left the Republicans, like the Democrats, with an all-white ticket again in 1937.
After the election, Alexander joined many black Americans of the era in shifting his allegiance to the Democratic Party. By 1940, however, Alexander decided that the Democrats were no more likely than the Republicans to elect a black judge and, dissatisfied with the New Deal and the party's lack of action on civil rights causes, he returned to the Republicans. Sadie Alexander had followed her husband's political shift to the Democrats and remained there, and in 1946 President Harry S. Truman appointed her to his Committee on Civil Rights. Alexander rejoined the Democratic Party in 1947 and campaigned for Truman the following year.
Following Truman's election, Alexander lobbied to be appointed to a federal district court seat. Around the same time, he was rumored to be among the candidates for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, but the position went to William H. Hastie instead, making Hastie the first black federal appeals court judge in 1950. Alexander's biographer, David A. Canton, suggests that Alexander's frequent party-switching and perceived disloyalty to the Democratic Party may have harmed his chances at a nomination. After his efforts at a seat on the federal bench failed, Alexander sought a foreign service appointment, expressing a particular desire to be Ambassador to Haiti or Ethiopia; he was unsuccessful.
By the late 1940s, Alexander joined the ranks of a growing reform movement in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. The group was led by Joseph S. Clark Jr. and Richardson Dilworth, former Republicans who left their party over machine politics, and James A. Finnegan, a Democratic organization leader who saw that a growing desire for civil service reform and good government could lift his party from its perpetual minority status by attracting independent voters. After reformers passed a new city charter in 1951, Alexander won the Democratic primary for to represent the 5th district in City Council. At the general election that November, Alexander won easily, taking 58% of the vote against incumbent Republican Eugene J. Sullivan. Democrats swept nine of the ten council districts and elected Clark mayor, ending 67 years of Republican rule in the city.
Alexander's campaign for council stressed messages of merit selection for city workers as well as increasing the number of black employees. The promise of civil service reform gained the confidence of black voters, who had traditionally been left out of the Republican patronage system. In 1953, Alexander introduced a resolution in council demanding that the then all-white Girard College admit black students, or else lose its tax-exempt status. The case wound its way through the courts, led by civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore; the school would eventually desegregate, but not until 1968, long after Alexander had left City Council.
He was reelected in 1955 with an increased share of the vote: 70%. On City Council, Alexander continued to press the cause of civil service reform. In 1954, he successfully opposed the efforts fellow Democrats James Hugh Joseph Tate and Michael J. Towey to weaken the civil service reforms of the new charter. Two years later, Alexander remained opposed, but the amendments' proponents found the required two-thirds vote in Council to make it on to the ballot for popular approval. A referendum on the subject failed in a vote that April.
In 1957, Congressman Earl Chudoff resigned from his 4th district seat in the House of Representatives to become a judge on the Court of Common Pleas. The district was about 75% black, and the Democratic organization wanted a black candidate to replace Chudoff, who was white. They settled on Robert N. C. Nix Sr., a local attorney. Alexander also announced his candidacy for the seat; according to his biographer, Alexander was less interested in serving in Congress than in using the leverage of a primary challenge to force the party organization to back him for a judgeship. The ploy was successful. Alexander soon dropped out of the race and Nix was elected. Governor George M. Leader appointed Alexander to a judicial vacancy and on January 5, 1959, he was sworn in, the first black judge to sit on the Court of Common Pleas. In the election later that year, he won a full ten-year term on the court.
In Alexander's first year on the court, he was disturbed by the high number of black defendants he saw and sought to remedy the problem by creating an alternate probation system for first-time offenders called the "Spiritual Rehabilitation Program", with funding an logistical assistance coming from local churches and synagogues. The program received national attention for its innovative approach to crime but failed to gain much support outside of black churches. He also found himself dragged back into the political realm when Republicans demanded that a grand jury be convened to investigate Democratic corruption in City Hall; Alexander rejected their petition.
Alexander continued to be active as a civil rights leader, but clashed with younger activists over the methods best suited to achieving their goals. In 1962, for example, while Alexander urged increased black representation on the Philadelphia Council for Community Advancement, he disagreed with NAACP branch president Cecil B. Moore's call for a boycott of corporate donors to the group. While supporting Martin Luther King's civil disobedience campaigns in the South in 1964, he believed some measures hurt the cause by alienating white voters; he called on black leaders to "cease the needless demonstrations, stall-ins, uncalled lie downs especially in the North which bring discredit upon us." In 1966, he condemned the Black Power movement as "a hazardous and meaningless catch-phrase which is as dangerous and divisive for the Negro as the white racism which we have opposed for so long."
Despite differences with Moore and others, Alexander continued to work toward his lifelong goal of racial equality. In 1969, he called for the city to hire more black employees, and in 1972 penned an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling for the Philadelphia Police Department to do the same. Meanwhile, he spoke out against black separatism, calling it "reverse racism." His focus increasingly was on how economic issues exacerbated racial problems, and he called for a universal basic income and affirmative action to remedy the problem. Nevertheless, according to Canton, by the 1970s young blacks viewed Alexander and his generation of civil rights leaders as "out of touch and too dependent on the white elite."
On the night of November 25, 1974, Alexander was found dead of a heart attack in his judicial chambers. Leon Sullivan officiated Alexander's funeral at Philadelphia's First Baptist Church, after which he was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
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