Biography of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

Graduation Photo. Public Domain

Overview

As a leading civil rights, political and legal advocate for African-Americans and women, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander is considered to be a fighter for social justice.

When Alexander was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1947, she was described as “...an active worker for civil rights, she has been a steady and forceful advocate on the national, state, and municipal scene, reminding people everywhere that freedoms are won not only by idealism but by persistence and will over a long time…”

Key Achievements

  • 1921: First African-American woman to receive a PhD in the United States.
  • 1921: First African-American to receive a PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
  • 1927: First African-American woman to enroll and earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
  • 1943: First woman to hold a national office in the National Bar Association.

Family

Alexander came from a family with a rich legacy. Her maternal grandfather, Benjamin Tucker Tanner was appointed bishop of the African Method Episcopal Church. Her aunt, Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson was the first African-American woman to receive a license to practice medicine in Alabama. And her uncle was internationally acclaimed artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell, was the first African-American to graduate for the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1888. Her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell, was the first African-American physician to graduate from University of Pennsylvania Medical School and co-founded the Frederick Douglass Hospital in 1895.

Early Life, Education and Career

Born in Philadelphia in 1898, as Sarah Tanner Mossell, she would be called Sadie throughout her life. Throughout her childhood, Alexander would live between Philadelphia and Washington D.C. with her mother and older siblings.

In 1915, she graduated from the M Street School and attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Education.

Alexander graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1918 and the following year, Alexander received her master's degree in economics.

Awarded the Francis Sergeant Pepper fellowship, Alexander went on to become the first African- American woman to receive a PhD in the United States. Of this experience, Alexander said “I can well remember marching down Broad Street from Mercantile Hall to the Academy of Music where there were photographers from all over the world taking my picture.”

After receiving her PhD in economics from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, Alexander accepted a position with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company where she worked for two years before returning to Philadelphia to marry Raymond Alexander in 1923.

Soon after marrying Raymond Alexander, she enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's Law School where she became a very active student, working as a contributing writer and associate editor on the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. In 1927, Alexander graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and later became the first African-American woman to pass and be admitted to the Pennsylvania State Bar.

For thirty two years, Alexander worked with her husband, specializing in family and estate law.

In addition to practicing law, Alexander was served as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia from 1928 to 1930 and again from 1934 to 1938.

The Alexanders were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement and practiced civil rights law as well. While her husband served on the city council, Alexander was appointed to President Harry Truman's Committee of Human Rights in 1947. In this position, Alexander helped to develop the concept of a national civil rights policy when she coauthored the report, "To Secure These Rights." In the report, Alexander argues that Americans--regardless of gender or race--should be granted the opportunity to improve themselves and in doing so, strengthen the United States.

Later, Alexander served on the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia from 1952 to 1958.

In 1959, when her husband was appointed as a judge to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, Alexander continued to practice law until her retirement in 1982.

Death

Alexander died in 1989 in Philadelphia.