Sadie Tanner Mossell
January 2, 1898
|Died||November 1, 1989 (aged 91)|
|Education||University of Pennsylvania (AB, AM, PhD, LLB)|
|Relatives||Aaron Albert Mossell II (father) Mary Louisa Tanner (mother)|
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989), was a pioneering Black professional and civil rights activist of the early-to-mid-20th century. In 1921, Mossell Alexander was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States. In 1927, she was first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and went on to become the first Black woman to practice law in the state. She was also the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, serving from 1919 to 1923.
Mossell Alexander and her husband were active in civil rights, both in Philadelphia and nationally. In 1946 she was appointed to the President's Committee on Civil Rights established by Harry Truman. In 1952 she was appointed to the city's Commission on Human Relations, serving through 1968. She was a founding member of the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (1963). She served on the board of the National Urban League for 25 years. U.S. President Jimmy Carter named her in 1979 to chair the decennial White House Conference on Aging, an appointment later withdrawn by Richard Schweiker, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Mossell returned to Philadelphia to study at the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1918. There, she faced numerous hardships, due to her race and gender, such as poor advising, false accusations of plagiarism, and other students stealing her intellectual property. She pursued graduate work in economics, also at Penn, earning her master's in 1919. Awarded the Francis Sergeant Pepper fellowship, she was able to continue her studies and in 1921 became the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a PhD from an American university.
Finding it difficult to get professorship work in Philadelphia as an African-American even with her doctorate, Mossell decided to take an actuarial job with the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, North Carolina, and worked there for two years.
In 1919, Sadie Tanner Mossell was elected the first national President of Delta Sigma Theta. Mossell Alexander also served as the legal advisor to Delta Sigma Theta sorority for 35 years. She was in contact with the Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta since 1915 when she arrived at the University of Pennsylvania. However, she needed five students to charter a chapter of the sorority, which was not possible until 1918. In March 1918, the Gamma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta was established with Mossell as its first President. At the request of the Alpha Chapter, the four existing chapters of Delta Sigma Theta were called to convene at Howard University in December 1919. The sorority planned to host their meetings in the women's dormitory on campus until Mossell's uncle Lewis Baxter Moore offered his office as a meeting place. At this convention, the Grand Chapter of the sorority was established, taking the sorority from a loose federation of chapters to a national body. Under, Mossell's leadership the Sorority expanded to new locales in the West, the South, and further into the Midwest and Northeast. She also initiated Delta's first national program, May Week.
In 1923, Mossell married Raymond Pace Alexander shortly after he was admitted to the bar, then returned with him to Philadelphia. Mossell received job offers from several Black colleges and universities, but none of them was located in Philadelphia, and she had no desire to leave her new family. So she stayed home for a year, did volunteer work, and eventually entered law school. She was the first African-American woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. While a law student, the dean attempted to deny her participation on the law review, but her fellow students – including Philip Werner Amram, who was then editor-in-chief – insisted that she be allowed this honor, which she had earned. In 1927, she was Penn's first African-American woman graduate, and the first to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.
Mossell Alexander practiced law from 1927 until her retirement in 1982. Upon admission to the Bar, she joined her husband's law practice as partner, specializing in estate and family law. They both were active in civil rights law as well. In 1928 she was the first African-American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia, serving to 1930. She was reappointed from 1934–1938. From 1943–1947, she was the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association. She was appointed to the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia, serving from 1952–1968. In 1959, when her husband was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, she opened her own law office. She continued to practice law independently until her husband's death in 1974. In 1976, she joined the firm of Atkinson, Myers, and Archie as a general counsel, where she remained until her retirement.
Mossell Alexander died on November 1, 1989, at Cathedral Village in Andorra, Philadelphia, from pneumonia as a complication from Alzheimer's disease. She was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Her maternal grandfather was Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835–1923), a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and editor of the Christian Recorder. Bishop Tanner and his wife had seven children, including Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), who became a noted painter, and Hallie Tanner Johnson, the first female physician to practice medicine in Alabama and who established the Nurses' School and Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell II (1863-1951), was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and practiced as a lawyer in Philadelphia. In 1899, when his daughter Sadie was a one year old, he abandoned his family and moved to Wales. Her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell (1856–1946) was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Mossell Alexander's siblings include Aaron Albert Mossell III (1893–1975), who became a pharmacist; and Elizabeth Mossell (1894–1975), who became a Dean of Women at Virginia State College, a historically black college.
On November 29, 1923, Sadie Tanner Mossell married Raymond Pace Alexander (1897–1974) in her parents' home on Diamond Street in North Philadelphia, with the ceremony performed by her father. Alexander, the son of slaves, grew up in Philadelphia. He attended and graduated from Central High School (1917, valedictorian), Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (1920), and Harvard Law School (1923). At the time of this marriage, he had established a law practice in Philadelphia.
Sadie and Raymond had four premature children, with only the last two surviving. They were able to raise two daughters: Mary Elizabeth Alexander (born 1934), who married Melvin Brown; and Rae Pace Alexander (born 1937), who earned a PhD. and married Archie C. Epps III. After her divorce with Epps, in 1971 Rae Pace Alexander married Thomas Minter, and they had two sons together.
Views and activities
According to Nina Banks, Alexander's opposition to racial oppression was within a tradition of 19th century scholars Frederick Douglass and T. Thomas Fortune, and with later scholars W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph. Alexander's focus was frequently on racial and economic justice for the working class, especially for working men and women. However, unlike Dubois or Randolph, Alexander never embraced socialism. Alexander also can be contrasted with Howard University radicals Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, and fellow black economist Abram Harris. For example, Harris wrote that the fundamental problems facing blacks could be overcome through multi-racial labor organizing and did not support direct action for civil rights until blacks had achieved economic power. Alexander, on the other hand, was outspoken against white dominance in political, social, and economic spheres.
Alexander's work and views are recorded in speeches kept in the University of Pennsylvania archives. Among her earliest works are from the 1920s and discuss black workers in the US economy. In 1930, Alexander published an article, "Negro Women in Our Economic Life", which was published in Urban League's Opportunity magazine advocating black women's employment, particularly in industrial jobs. Alexander generally supported the Republican Party, suspicious of the control of conservative southern whites over the Democratic Party, although she also criticized Republican political appointments, as well as what she saw as uneven benefits of the New Deal which did not do enough to help blacks who were most hurt by the great depression. During World War II, Alexander saw similarities in a rise in racial violence and discrimination in the US as paralleling the treatment of Jews in Germany. Near the end of the war, she supported integrating labor unions to increase their bargaining power once the war economy slowed and industrial employment moved toward pre-war levels. Her interest in labor economic issues extended to advocating for government regulation to smooth fluctuations in the business cycle, modification of tariffs, regulation of public utilities, and regulation of securities and securities markets.
After the war she was appointed to Truman's Presidential Committee on Human Rights and shifted her focus to civil and human rights. Evidence in the archives suggests that her focus was in this direction for over a decade. In 1949, Alexander and six other Philadelphians formed the Citizens' Council on Democratic Rights to "protect and extend the enjoyment of human rights." In 1951, joined by Henry W. Sawyer, the Council became the Greater Philadelphia Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union; Alexander continued to serve on that organization's Board of Directors for many years. In 1963 she gave a speech to the Annual Conference of Commission on Human Rights and she returned to the topic of economic justice, advocating for universal employment.
In a 1981 interview she did with the Geriatric Nursing journal about her position as chair of the WHCoA, Alexander expressed her disapproval of anti-abortion legislation. She advocated for better benefits for nurses and stressed their vitality to the healthcare system. She also expressed that everyone, no matter their age or educational level, can add value to the economy with the proper support.
Legacy and honors
- In 1948, the National Urban League featured Alexander as "Woman of the Year" in its comic book of Negro Heroes.
- In 1970, Alexander was finally granted membership into Phi Beta Kappa, an honor she had been denied as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania.
- In 1974, Alexander was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania, her first of seven such honors. She received the degree at University of Pennsylvania Law School.
- In 1980, Alexander received the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Pennsylvania's Law School.
- An elementary school in West Philadelphia, the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School ("Penn Alexander"), is named after her. The public school was developed in partnership with the University, which supports the school financially and academically.
- The Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania is named in her honor.
- In 2018, The Sadie Collective, an organization for Black Women in quantitative fields was created in her honor. It hosted the first U.S. conference for Black Women in Economics in 2019, drawing attention from press outlets such as NPR, Forbes, Bloomberg, and Quartz as well as notable economists like Janet Yellen, former Chair of the Federal Reserve System, and James Poterba, current president and CEO of the NBER. The conference was attended by her daughter, Dr. Rae Pace Alexander-Minter, and took place at Mathematica Policy Research's Washington, D.C., office.
- In 2018, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker proposed a measure to erect a statue of Alexander.
- On February 24, 2021, Alexander's life and accomplishments were the subject of an episode of the podcast Broads You Should Know
- In April 27, 2022, Alexander was named a distinguished fellow by the American Economic Association for her contributions to economic equality and civil rights. She is the first and only economist to posthumously receive the award.
- "Lawyer Sadie Alexander, a Black pioneer dies at 91". Associated Press. November 3, 1989. Retrieved September 10, 2015.
Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, a lawyer and civil rights advocate who achieved many firsts as a black woman, has died of pneumonia at age 91. ...
- "Sadie T. M. Alexander, 91, dies; lawyer and civil rights advocate". The New York Times. November 3, 1989. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
On June 15, 1921, she became the second black woman in the United States to receive a PhD; the first, Georgiana Simpson, got the degree a day earlier at the University of Chicago. ...
- "Sadie T.M. Alexander". The Washington Post. November 5, 1989.
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, 91, who was appointed by President Truman to the Committee on Civil Rights in 1948, and by President Carter as chairman of his White House Conference on Aging in 1981, died Nov. 1 at her home in Philadelphia. She had Alzheimer's disease. Mrs. Alexander, who is believed to be the first black woman to hold a doctorate in economics and to become a lawyer in Pennsylvania, founded a chapter of the Howard University-based black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and became its first national president. She was active nationally in the ...
- "A lively leader for the WHCoA". Geriatric Nursing. 2 (3): 233–234. May 1, 1981. doi:10.1016/S0197-4572(81)80093-6. ISSN 0197-4572.
- Who's who in colored America. New York: Who's Who in Colored America Corp. 1927. OCLC 644049795.
- "Alexander Family Collection". University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- Sowell, Thomas (2002). Lazear, Edward P. (ed.). The Education of Minority Children. pp. 79–92. ISBN 978-0-8179-2892-6. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
- "The Alexander Technique." The Economist, vol. 437, no. 9225, December 19, 2020, pp. 46-47.
- Banks, Nina; Whatley, Warren C. (2022). "A Nation of Laws, and Race Laws". Journal of Economic Literature. 60 (2): 427–453. doi:10.1257/jel.20211689. ISSN 0022-0515. S2CID 249328541.
- Malveaux, Julianne (1991). "Missed Opportunity: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and the Economics Profession". The American Economic Review. 81 (2): 307–310. ISSN 0002-8282. JSTOR 2006875.
- "Negress Gets Ph.D at Pennsylvania". The Evening World. No. 21, 767. June 15, 1921. Retrieved May 26, 2021.
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- Giddings 1998, op. cit., p. 83.
- "Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander", University of Pennsylvania Almanac, accessed March 31, 2011
- Snyder, Susan (April 3, 2022). "Black women now lead three of Penn's prestigious law journals. They talk about what other change they'd like to see". www.inquirer.com. Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved April 7, 2022.
- Smith, Jr., J. Clay (1999). Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. p. ?. ISBN 9780812216851.
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- "Sadie Alexander Biography at Black History Now". August 29, 2011. Retrieved June 8, 2020.
- Martin, Douglas (May 26, 2009). "Thomas Minter, 84, New York and Federal Education Official, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved May 27, 2009.
- DeNavas-Walt, Carmen; Proctor, Bernadette D.; Smith, Jessica C. (September 2012). "Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2010" (PDF). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. U.S. Census Bureau. p. 8.
- Nina Banks, The Black Worker, Economic Justice and the Speeches of Sadie T.M. Alexander. Review of Social Economy, Vol. LXVI, No. 2, June 2008 p 139-161 available as of November 1, 2018 at https://www.jstor.org/stable/29770460
- Shuford, Reggie (November 2019). "A Relatively Brief History of the ACLU of Pennsylvania". ACLU Pennsylvania. Retrieved September 16, 2021.
- Garner, Carla (October 29, 2010). "Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989) •". Retrieved June 8, 2020.
- "With All Due Respect". Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander: University of Pennsylvania, PH.D, 1921, LLD 1927. 15 (1).
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- D’Onofrio, Michael. "Statue for lawyer, civil rights advocate long overdue, officials say". The Philadelphia Tribune. Retrieved June 8, 2020.
- Broads You Should Know (2021). "Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander".
- "American Economic Association". www.aeaweb.org. Retrieved January 30, 2023.
- "Trailblazing Penn alumna Sadie T.M. Alexander gets posthumous honor". Penn Today. Retrieved January 30, 2023.
- "American Economic Association". www.aeaweb.org. Retrieved January 30, 2023.
- "NBER Research Associates Honored by AEA". NBER. Retrieved January 30, 2023.
- Banks, Nina. 2022. "Sadie T. M. Alexander: Black Women and a "Taste of Freedom in the Economic World"." Journal of Economic Perspectives 36(4): 205-20.
- Banks, Nina; Whatley, Warren C. (2022). "A Nation of Laws, and Race Laws". Journal of Economic Literature. 60 (2): 427–453
- Mack, Kenneth W., (2012). Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer (2012). ISBN 978-0-674-04687-0.
- Mack, Kenneth W., (2002) "A Social History of Everyday Practice: Sadie T.M. Alexander and the Incorporation of Black Women into the American Legal Profession, 1925-60," Cornell Law Review, Vol. 87, p. 1405 A Social History of Everyday Practice: Sadie T.M. Alexander and the Incorporation of Black Women into the American Legal Profession, 1925-60
- Nier, Charles Lewis. (1998) "Sweet are the Uses of Adversity: The Civil rights Activism of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander," Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review 8. no.59
- Obituaries: New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1989.
- Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander material in the Alexander family papers, 1817-2005 (bulk 1925-1983) at the University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center