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date: 18 November 2019

Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossellfree

(03 January 1898–01 November 1989)
  • Nancy Elizabeth Fitch

Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell (03 January 1898–01 November 1989), economist and lawyer, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Aaron Mossell, an attorney and the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Mary Tanner. While a young girl her father abandoned the family, and she was raised by her mother with the assistance of relatives.

Alexander received her degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. With her Ph.D. in economics, awarded in 1921, she became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in economics and among the first three African-American women to receive a doctorate in any field in the United States. Her doctoral dissertation, “The Standard of Living among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia,” was a thorough social survey investigating spending patterns, from 1916 to 1918, of African-American migrant families newly arrived from the South. It was based on interviews in Philadelphia’s Twenty-ninth Ward. Attentive to intraracial class distinctions, she suggested in this study, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences in November 1921, that the black middle class, including church leaders and professionals, should serve as an example of thrift and propriety for the masses of black people. In a 1930 article, “Negro Women in Our Economic Life,” written for the National Urban League’s Opportunity magazine, she would expand the discussion by writing that black women had an important role to play in the community and that their married lives and the lives of their children would be enhanced if they became involved in industry and business. She advised black women to produce goods that had a “price value” rather than remaining housewives and consumers who were seen as not contributing to the economic life of their families. Alexander’s early interest in the role of African-American women in the larger community is further evidenced by the fact that from 1919 to 1923 she served as the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority and public service organization. She would later become its president emeritus.

As an African-American woman, Alexander found it difficult after earning her doctorate to find suitable employment in her field of economics. But with a minor in insurance and actuarial science, she went to Durham, North Carolina, the “Capital of the Black Middle Class,” becoming an assistant actuary from 1921 to 1923 at the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. In 1923 she married Raymond Pace Alexander, a fellow economist and a Harvard Law School graduate, in Philadelphia. They had two daughters.

The year after her marriage Alexander began attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was named to the editorial board of the Law Review. In 1927 she became the law school’s first black woman graduate and later that year the first black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. After graduation she and her husband went into legal practice together; she specialized in estate and family law. She started her own practice in 1959 when her husband became a Philadelphia municipal court judge. She maintained a solo practice in domestic relations, adoption, and juvenile care until 1976, when she joined the Philadelphia law firm of Atkinson, Myers and Archie, where she remained until her retirement in 1982.

During the late 1920s and into the 1930s, Alexander served as assistant city solicitor for Philadelphia. During this period, she and Judge Alexander also became well known as civil libertarians and for their civil and human rights advocacy. They drafted laws, including the 1935 Pennsylvania Public Accommodations Act, to desegregate Philadelphia restaurants, hotels, and theaters, and they filed court cases to test the enforcement of those laws.

In 1925 the Alexanders were also instrumental in founding the National Bar Association, the association of black attorneys; Judge Alexander was one of its early presidents. Sadie Alexander wrote one of the first articles for the association’s National Bar Journal, “Women as Practitioners of Law in the Untied States” (July 1941), and she served as the organization’s national secretary from 1943 to 1947. She also drafted a section of Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter that mandated the formation of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. She subsequently served as a member of its board and on occasion as its chairwoman.

In 1946 President Harry S. Truman appointed Sadie Alexander to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and she contributed to its final report, To Secure These Rights, published after a series of public hearings in 1947. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Law, and President Jimmy Carter named her chair of the White House Conference on Aging in 1979.

In addition, Alexander served as a national officer on the board of the National Urban League for more than twenty-five years and was a member of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union and on the Philadelphia chapter’s board of directors.

Alexander was significant both as an intellectual and an activist. A pioneer in social research, she became the first African-American woman to achieve a variety of personal and professional distinctions. She was a prominent and vocal member of the black middle class with a vision about the role it must play, as well as the role women working outside the home must play, in the larger African-American community. She was recognized not only for her work in Philadelphia but also nationally, with three American presidents seeking her counsel.

In her lifetime, Alexander was recognized by the academic community, where she greatly excelled, receiving a number of honorary degrees. In 1980 she received the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1987 the Philadelphia Bar Association named its public service center in her honor. She died in Philadelphia.

Bibliography

The papers of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and her husband are located at the University of Pennsylvania. Several articles worthy of note include Marcia Greenlee, “Interview with Dr. Sadie T. M. Alexander,” in The Black Women Oral History Project, vol. 2 (1991), pp. 70–85; Julianne Malveaux, “Missed Opportunity: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and the Economics Profession,” American Economic Review 81 (May 1991): 307–10, is an unusual account of the seminal research Alexander did for her doctoral dissertation in economics that speculates about the kind of research she might have performed and the impact she might have made had she been able to practice in the field of economics; and Theresa Snyder, “Sadie Alexander” in Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (1991), and V. P. Franklin, “Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander,” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, vol. 1 (1993). Obituaries are in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times, 3 Nov. 1989.