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Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989), was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States (1921), and the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She was the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania.[1] She was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, serving from 1919 to 1923.[2][3]

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
Sadie Tanner Mossell receiving Ph.d at the University of Pennsylvania
Sadie Tanner Mossell

(1898-01-02)January 2, 1898
DiedNovember 1, 1989(1989-11-01) (aged 91)
Alma materUniversity of Pennsylvania
OccupationLawyer; first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated; Civil Rights activist
Spouse(s)Raymond Pace Alexander
ChildrenMary Elizabeth Alexander
Rae Pace Alexander
Parent(s)Aaron Albert Mossell II
Mary Louisa Tanner

In 1946 she was appointed to the President's Committee on Civil Rights established by Harry Truman. She was the first African-American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. She and her husband were both active in civil rights. In 1952 she was appointed to the city's Commission on Human Relations, serving through 1968. She was President of John F. Kennedy Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (1963).



Sadie Tanner Mossell 1918

Sadie Tanner Mossell was born on January 2, 1898 in Philadelphia to Aaron Albert Mossell II and Mary Louisa Tanner (1867-?).

Mossell attended high school in Washington, DC at the M Street School, now known as Dunbar High School, graduating in 1915.[4][5]

Mossell returned to Philadelphia to study at the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1918. 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 second African-American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D.[6][7]

Finding it difficult to get work in Philadelphia, Mossell worked for the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, North Carolina for two years.

In 1923, Mosell married Raymond Pace Alexander, returned with him to Philadelphia, and entered law school. She was the first African-American woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Law School.[7] In 1927, she was its first African-American woman graduate, and the first to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.[4]

Mossell Alexander practiced law from 1927 until her retirement in 1982. Upon admission to the Bar, she joined her husband's law practice, 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 to 1938. From 1943 to 1947 she was the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.[7] She was appointed to the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia, serving from 1952 to 1968. In 1959, when her husband was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, she continued to practice law on her own. In 1976, she joined the firm of Atkinson, Myers, and Archie as a general counsel, where she stayed 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.[2][3][1] She was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.


Sadie Alexander c. 1982

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, a physician who established the Nurses' School and Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.[4]

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 1 year old, he abandoned his family and moved to Wales.[8] Her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell (1856–1946) was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.[4]

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.[4]

During her high school years, Mossell lived in Washington, DC with her uncle, Lewis Baxter Moore, who was dean at Howard University.

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 two children: 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 divorce, in 1971 she married Thomas Minter, and they had two sons together.[9]


This graph shows the inequality of real median US household income by race: 1967 to 2011, in 2011 dollars.[10]

According to Nina Banks,[11] Alexander's opposition to racial oppression was within a black radical 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.[11]

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 of government regulation to smooth fluctuations in the business cycle, modification of tariffs, regulation of public utilities, and regulation of securities and securities markets.[11]

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 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.[11]

Legacy and honorsEdit

Penn Alexander public elementary school, 2016
  • In 1948, the National Urban League featured Alexander as "Woman of the Year" in its comic book of Negro Heroes.[4]
  • In 1970, Alexander was finally granted membership into Phi Beta Kappa, and honor she had been denied as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania.[12]
  • In 1974, Alexander was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania, her first of seven such honors[7]
  • 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.[13]
  • In 2018, the Sadie Collective, an organization for Black Women in quantitative fields was created in her honor, 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. [14]


  1. ^ a b "Lawyer Sadie Alexander, a Black pioneer dies at 91". Associated Press. November 3, 1989. Retrieved 2015-09-10. 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. ...
  2. ^ a b "Sadie T. M. Alexander, 91, Dies; Lawyer and Civil Rights Advocate". New York Times. November 3, 1989. Retrieved 2014-08-17. On June 15, 1921, she became the second black woman in the United States to receive a Ph.D.; the first, Georgiana Simpson, got the degree a day earlier at the University of Chicago. ...
  3. ^ a b "Sadie T. M. Alexander". 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 ...
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Alexander Family Collection". University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center. Retrieved 2010-10-26.
  5. ^ Sowell, Thomas (2002). Lazear, Edward P (ed.). The Education of Minority Children. pp. 79–92. ISBN 978-0-8179-2892-6. Retrieved 2010-10-26.
  6. ^ Malveaux, Julianne (1997). "Missed Opportunity: Sadie Teller Mossell Alexander and the Economics Profession". In Thomas D. Boston (ed.). A Different Vision: Africa American Economic Thought. 1. Routledge Chapman & Hall. pp. 123–. ISBN 978-0-415-12715-8. Retrieved 4 June 2013.
  7. ^ a b c d "Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander", University of Pennsylvania Almanac, accessed 31 March 2011
  8. ^ Black History Now: Biography of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
  9. ^ Martin, Douglas (May 26, 2009). "Thomas Minter, 84, New York and Federal Education Official, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved May 27, 2009.
  10. ^ DeNavas-Walt, Carmen; Proctor, Bernadette D.; Smith, Jessica C. (September 2012). "Real Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1967 to 2010". Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011 (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. p. 8.
  11. ^ a b c d 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
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-07-18. Retrieved 2012-05-01.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ "The Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics and Related Fields"

Further readingEdit

  • 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 [1]
  • 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, 3 Nov. 1989.

External linksEdit