Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989
Notable: Activist & Lawyer
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the youngest of Mary Tanner and Aaron A. Mossell’s three children. The Tanner and Mossell families were distinguished within the Black community. Her father was an attorney and other family members were an AME bishop, painter (Henry O. Tanner), doctor, surgeon, university dean, and hospital founders.
Unfortunately, Mossell’s father abandoned the family when she was about one year old. In the aftermath, Mossell’s mother took her and her sister back and forth between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to get help with caring for the girls. Living between the two cities resulted in Mossell attending school in Philadelphia and later D.C.’s famed M Street High School. (M Street was renamed Dunbar High School around the time she graduated.)
Despite Mossell’s uncle being a dean at Howard University, she instead enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. While attending the School of Education, Mossell had to contend with the racist attitudes of classmates and professors. She was barred from borrowing books from the library and denied entry to Phi Beta Kappa. But Mossell didn’t allow those negative experiences to deter her and graduated with honors.
She remained at the University of Pennsylvania for grad school, ultimately completing a master’s degree. In 1921, Mossell completed a doctorate in economics. The accomplishment was significant on both a personal and historic level. Upon receiving her degree, Mossell became the second Black woman to receive a doctorate and the first Black person to receive a doctorate in economics in America.
Yet, Mossell continued to face obstacles as despite her degrees she was unable to find relevant work in Philadelphia due to her race and gender. Instead, she relocated to Durham, North Carolina where she spent two years working for the Black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. In 1923, Mossell returned to Philadelphia to marry Raymond Pace Alexander who she had begun dating in college and was now an attorney. They remained married until his death in 1974 and the union produced four daughters though only two survived to adulthood.
Alexander returned to the University of Pennsylvania but this time to attend the School of Law. Her enrollment made Alexander the school’s first Black female student. Upon graduation, she became the first Black woman admitted to the state’s bar and the first in America to have earned both a Ph.D. and J.D.
Her first job as an attorney was as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. Alexander later teamed up with her husband to form the firm Alexander & Alexander where she primarily focused on estate, family, and civil rights law. From that point forward Alexander held several positions that overlapped.
Alexander argued cases in the city’s Orpans’ Court and created a legal aid group to help Black residents who couldn’t afford to hire legal representation. The firm of Alexander & Alexander filed suit to secure the right for Black people to have access to recreational facilities such as restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters. She further contributed to the push for civil rights by working with the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action, and the National Urban League.
When President Truman formed the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946 he selected Alexander as one of the group’s 16 members. The committee created a report entitled To Secure These Rights which included various recommendations for the protection of civil rights. The report detailed various actions that should be taken but none of the suggestions were meaningfully implemented at that time. It would take a few more decades but they created a good deal of the framework for the civil rights legal battles and legislation of the 1960s.
Alexander co-founded the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia and served for 16 years that spanned the 1950s to 1960s. The law partnership of Alexander & Alexander remained active until Alexander’s husband left the firm in 1959 to work in the court system. Alexander continued to practice law independently for about 17 years until she joined Atkinson, Myers, and Archie as counsel. In 1978, Alexander was selected to serve as chair of the White House Conference on Aging. She served in that position until removed by Ronald Reagan.
After a long and storied career that spanned the years of 1927 to 1982, Alexander retired. She spent the next seven years of her life living privately. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander died on November 1, 1989, having left a legacy of working in service of the Black community.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2022. “Sadie Alexander.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. February 11, 2022. https://www.biography.com/activist/sadie-alexander.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2023. “Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. January 1, 2023.https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sadie-Tanner-Mossell-Alexander.
- Garner, Carla. 2020. “Sadie T. M. Alexander (1898-1989).” Blackpast.org. November 29, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/alexander-sadie-tanner-mossell-1898-1989/.
- “Sadie T. M. Alexander (Dec.), Distinguished Fellow 2022.” n.d. American Economic Association. Accessed January 10, 2023. https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/honors-awards/distinguished-fellows/sadie-alexander.
- “Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander .” 2022. University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center. March 2, 2022. https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-people/biography/sadie-tanner-mossell-alexander/.
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