Sadie Alexander was an American economist, lawyer and civil rights advocate who achieved multiple firsts as a Black woman in the 20th century.
Who Was Sadie Alexander?
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander broke barriers throughout her life. Born at the end of the 19th century, she was the first Black American to get a Ph.D. in economics, and was the second Black woman to earn a Ph.D., receiving hers just a day after the first. In addition, Alexander was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school and to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. She used her skills to fight for civil rights for Black Americans and served on President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. She was also appointed to the White House Conference on Aging by President Jimmy Carter.
Early Life and Education
Sadie Tanner Mossell was born on January 2, 1898, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Aaron A. Mossell and Mary Tanner Mossell.
Alexander grew up without her father, who left the family when she was a baby. As a child, she spent time in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Alexander graduated from Washington’s M Street High School, which later became Dunbar High School, in 1915.
Alexander’s next step was to enroll in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education. There, she was ostracized by her white classmates and informed she couldn’t borrow books from the school’s library. However, racism didn’t keep her from graduating with honors in 1918.
Alexander was a member of an accomplished family. Her grandfather, Bishop Benjamin Tucker, was a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. One uncle, Henry Ossawa Tanner, became an acclaimed painter. Another uncle, Nathan F. Mossell, was the first medical school graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked as a surgeon and co-founded what would become Mercy-Douglass Hospital.
Economics Ph.D. and Career
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, Alexander remained at the University of Pennsylvania to study economics. She received her master’s degree in 1919 and was awarded a Ph.D. in economics in 1921. Alexander was the first Black American to obtain a Ph.D. in economics, and the second Black woman to get a Ph.D. in any subject.
Unfortunately, racism and sexism kept Alexander from landing a challenging job in economics. She worked as an assistant actuary for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company from 1921 to 1923.
Legal Education and Firsts
Alexander decided to pursue a law degree in the hopes of using the courts and legislation to open doors that were closed to Black Americans. In 1924, she enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School. By attending this school, she was following in her father’s footsteps. Alexander’s father had been the first Black graduate of this school.
Though a dean objected to Alexander being on the law review, she was able to join. She became the first Black female graduate of this law school in 1927. Alexander next became the first Black woman to gain admittance to the Pennsylvania bar.
Civil Rights Work
Alexander used much of her legal expertise to bring civil rights cases. Along with her husband, Alexander fought for Black Philadelphians to be allowed access to restaurants, hotels and movie theaters.
In 1946, President Truman appointed Alexander to be one of 16 members on the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. In 1948, the committee released a report, “To Secure These Rights.” Recommendations included adding civil rights sections to the executive branch and the FBI. The report also called for reorganizing the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. And it suggested the need for federal laws to protect civil rights, both from assaults by individuals and against state-sanctioned abuses such as police brutality and poll taxes. Though no federal legislation followed, the report laid the groundwork for future action.
In 1951, Alexander co-founded the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia. She was a member of the commission from 1952 to 1968.
Alexander also fought for civil rights with the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action and the National Urban League. After Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Alexander presented him with a replica Liberty Bell.
Though Alexander did not work as economist, she continued to harness her knowledge of this area. She felt a government-supported program of full employment was “the only solution to the economic subjugation of the Negro and of the great masses of white labor.” Alexander believed full employment would keep whites from being able to discriminate against Black employees.
In addition to her work in civil rights, Alexander specialized in estate and family law. She served two terms as the assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia, one soon after she graduated law school and the other in the 1930s.
Alexander and her husband started the law firm Alexander & Alexander. When her husband became a judge in 1959, she launched own practice. In 1976, she became counsel for Atkinson, Myers and Archie. She retired in 1982.
Alexander was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority for Black women. From 1943 to ’47, she served as secretary of the National Bar Association. She was the first woman to hold this role in the organization.
In 1948, the National Urban League chose Alexander as Woman of the Year for its comic book Negro Heroes.
President Carter appointed Alexander to be chairperson of the White House Conference on Aging in 1979.
Death and Legacy
Alexander passed away in a Philadelphia retirement community on November 1, 1989. She had pneumonia as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
The Sadie Collective was named in honor of Alexander. The organization, formed by two Black women in 2018, encourages other Black women to enter economics and other data-driven fields.
Marriage and Children
Alexander wed attorney Raymond Pace Alexander in 1923. Together they had two daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Rae Pace.