Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, 1898-1989

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Woman Category: Economics & Finance and LawWoman Tags: African-American Women and Lawyer

  • HerStory

    An economist and attorney. The first African-American woman in the US to earn a Ph.D. in economics, the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and the first African-American woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.

    Sadie Tanner Mossell was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A year after she was born, her father abandoned the family and moved to the UK. During high school, she moved to Washington, DC, where she lived with her relatives and attended M Street School. At 17, she returned to Philadelphia to study Education at the University of Pennsylvania. There, she suffered discrimination from both students and professors, and though she graduated with honors, she was denied joining Phi Beta Kappa. She continued her studies, and at 23, received her M.A in Economics, followed by a Ph.D. – becoming the second African-American woman in the USA to earn a doctoral degree and the first to receive a Ph.D. in Economics.
     
    Despite her academic accolades, she struggled to get a professorship. Unable to find a job in Philadelphia, she moved to Durham, North Carolina, and worked for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. At the time, she also served as the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta – the black women’s sorority. In 1923, she married the lawyer and civil rights leader Raymond Pace Alexander, and the couple moved back to Philadelphia. Once again, she had difficulties getting a job in the city, so she stayed home, concentrated on volunteering for a year, and then decided to go to law school.
     
    At the age of 26, Alexander became the first African-American woman to study at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and two years later she became the first to graduate and to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar – the first African-American person to hold both a Ph.D. and a J.D. Afterward, she joined her husband’s law firm as a partner, making them one of the early married legal teams in the USA. As an attorney, Alexander advocated against segregation, racial discrimination, and employment inequality. As a partner, she helped draft the Pennsylvania state Public Accommodations Law of 1935, prohibiting discrimination in public places.
     
    At 30, Alexander added another “First” to her list when she was appointed the first African-American woman Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. During the two inconsecutive terms in this position (1928-1930 and 1934-1938), she established a legal aid bureau that assisted African-Americans who could not afford attorneys. In 1930, Alexander served as secretary for the National Urban League, a position she held for 27 years. In 1943, Alexander was chosen as secretary of the National Bar Association, becoming, once again, the first woman in this position. In 1947, President Harry Truman appointed her to his Committee on Human Rights, and in 1952 she began her 12 years term on Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations.
     
    At the age of 61, after her husband was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, Alexander opened her law firm, continuing to practice law for the next 15 years. At 78, she joined Atkinson, Myers, and Archie law firm as a general counsel until her retirement at 84. Alexander passed away at the age of 91 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
     

    “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.”

    “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.”

     


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell II, was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
    • Her maternal grandfather, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
    • Her uncle was the esteemed painter Henry Ossawa Tanner.
    • Her doctoral dissertation was titled “The Standard of Living Among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia.”
    • She had four premature children; only two survived to adulthood.
    • In 1948 she was featured as “Woman of the Year” in the National Urban League’s comic book of Negro Heroes.
    • The Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School is named in her honor.
    • The Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania is named in her honor.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Awards:

    * Granted membership into Phi Beta Kappa – the honor she had been denied as an undergraduate (1970)
    * Honorary doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania (1974)
    * The Distinguished Service Award from the University of Pennsylvania's Law School (1980)

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • America's First Black Economist

    Eighty years ago, Sadie Alexander was writing on the devaluation of household work, a topic that has only recently been covered by graduate economics programs. That’s just one of the ways the pioneering economist was ahead of her time, says Bucknell University professor Nina Banks. Alexander recognized the importance of black and white workers joining together in solidarity and unionizing, and saw a federal full employment program as economically vital. Alexander is one of many early feminist economists whose writings and ideas Banks believes we must revisit.

    Banks also discusses her other research projects, including her analysis of women’s (and especially women of color’s) unpaid work—not just in the house, but also as activists in the community.

  • At her Ph.D. graduation, University of Pennsylvania, 1921. Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Penn University website.
    Wikipedia page.


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