Seventeen-year-old Sadie Tanner Mossell arrived at Penn in the fall of 1915 with strong-willed ambition, a determination to succeed, and the utmost confidence, in a world that told her she was ugly, ignorant, and inferior.
She grew up surrounded by excellence, flowing across generations, and knew that prevalent notions of black inferiority were false and uncivilized.
Her paternal uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell, was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s School of Medicine. Her maternal aunt, also named Sadie, was the wife of Lewis Baxter Moore, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Penn, and her maternal uncle was famed painter Henry Ossawa Tanner.
In Washington, D.C. for her high school years, Mossell attended the prestigious M. Street High School and lived with her Aunt Sadie and Uncle Lewis on the campus of Howard University, where Baxter Moore served as dean of education.
“Based upon these exposures to talent and accomplishment, when I entered Penn’s School of Education in September 1915, I was convinced I had the ability to succeed,” she wrote in a 1972 reflection in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Adjusting to life at Penn was not easy. Mossell was one of only a few black female students on a campus full of almost all white men, and she had all white male professors.
The faculty was supportive, but to her fellow Penn students, Mossell was invisible. No one spoke to her in class, or on walks to College Hall, or to the library. She had no friends at all until the spring, and would study and eat alone.
She finished her freshman year with good marks, unbowed, and resolute.
Mossell excelled in all her courses during her sophomore and junior years, earning “Distinguished” (the equivalent of an A) in every class except French. At Class Day, Frank Pierrepont Graves, dean of the School of Education, presented her with a ceremonial broom for making a “clean sweep of D’s.”
She graduated with honors in three years in 1918, and continued her studies at Penn. She received her master’s degree in 1919 and her doctorate in 1921.
She was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics.
Mossell completed her graduate work in economics and insurance, and was highly skilled and qualified, but her talents were no match for the racial bigotry of early 20th century America. No company was hiring African Americans. Her Penn professors called around and recommended her for positions, to no avail.
Blackballed from Philadelphia’s insurance industry, she accepted a position in 1921 as an assistant actuary with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, N.C. Homesick and displeased with her job, she returned to Philadelphia in 1923 to marry her fiancé, Raymond Pace Alexander, the first African American to graduate from the Wharton School, who had recently graduated from Harvard Law School. They married on Nov. 29, 1923, and she took the name Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.
Alexander was a housewife during the first year of their marriage and says she “almost lost my mind.” She tried to get a job teaching in a high school, but they refused to hire black people. Contemplating her next move, she decided to become a lawyer.
Backed by three degrees of eminence and a recommendation from Josiah H. Penniman, vice provost and later provost of the University, Alexander was one of five women, and the only African-American woman, to enroll at Penn Law in 1924.
She shined in her classes, earning “Distinguished” in courses such as evidence, trusts, conflicts of laws, constitutional law, legal ethics, practice, and property law.
During her third year, she became the first African-American woman elected to the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
On June 15, 1927, she became the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law.
Twenty-nine-year-old Sadie Alexander became the first black woman to pass the Pennsylvania bar, and upon joining the Law Offices of Raymond Pace Alexander, the first to practice law in the state.
She worked for the Office of the Solicitor from 1928-30 and 1934-38. Assigned to Orphans Court, she represented the City of Philadelphia in the collection of claims and taxes.
At Raymond’s thriving private practice, Alexander specialized in family law, probate law, divorce, child support, adoption, juvenile delinquents, and contested and non-contested estates. Her clients, some referred by the biggest law firms in the city, were men and women of every faith and ethnicity.
At times, she averaged 100 cases per year, in addition to answering phones at the office, interviewing clients in her husband’s absence, and helping with trial preparation.
Rare for a woman of her day, Alexander argued appeals before the full Orphans’ Court bench, the state Supreme Court, and the United States District Court.
On Dec. 5, 1946, after a wave of lynchings and other acts of anti-black violence, President Harry Truman signed an executive order creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Alexander, 49, was appointed by Truman as one of the 15 committee members.
Chaired by Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric, the committee met 10 times between January and September 1947. Alexander and her colleagues interviewed scores of witnesses on issues such as lynching, police brutality, segregation in the military, the internment of Japanese Americans, the right to citizenship, the right to vote, the right to bear arms, and the rights to employment and education.
Submitted to President Truman in December of 1947, the committee’s final report, titled “To Secure These Rights,” registered a number of recommendations to expand, strengthen, and protect civil rights in America.
One of their recommendations was the desegregation of the military, which Truman ordered on July 26, 1948.
During her days at Penn, Alexander devoted herself to joining the fight to uplift African Americans in Philadelphia, and ease their grief and woe, as soon as she got her education. Armed with a law degree, she spent her entire adult life fighting for black people.
All throughout her 50-plus-year law career, Alexander fought against housing discrimination and police brutality, and represented civil rights, anti-war, and anti-draft demonstrators, draft resistors, and tenant groups pro bono.
She was a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and served on the organization’s national committee. In 1952, she helped create the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, a local agency that enforces civil rights laws, and served on its board.
Alexander’s accolades seem endless. She was a founder of the National Bar Association, and the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., an African-American sorority. For 25 years, she served on the national board of the National Urban League.
She has five degrees from Penn. On May 20, 1974, at the University’s 218th Commencement, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws. Late in her life, she called the tribute “the highest thing that I’d ever aspired to.”
Alexander passed away on Nov. 6, 1989, at age 91. She is survived by her two daughters, cherished members of the University community.
The Penn Alexander School, an award-winning K-8 public school in West Philadelphia created through a partnership between Penn, the School District of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, is named in her honor.
With reverence and honor, Penn Law School rejoices and hails the life of Sadie Alexander.
“She’s one of our most important alumni because she was a really determined and tremendous trailblazer,” says Theodore Ruger, dean of Penn Law and the Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. “We’re very proud of our relationship with her.”
Every year since 1989, the Penn Law Black Law Students Association (BLSA) has sponsored the Annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference. Featuring seminars, panel discussions, career fairs, workshops, and keynote speakers, themes have included legal responses to the drug dilemma, civil rights in the 1990s, and applications of the 14th Amendment. The most recent Sadie conference, held on Feb. 11, was titled, “Social Media and the Law.”
Second-year Penn Law student Tonique Garrett, BLSA’s social media co-chair and co-chair of the conference, says the organizers try to tie the focus of the program to issues of importance to the black community since Alexander was such a strong advocate for African Americans.
Conference co-chair and second-year student Erica Clark says Alexander’s perseverance as a Penn student is a source of strength as she makes her way through law school.
“I’m sure she did it with her head held high, and probably had the emotional and mental courage of no other,” Clark says. “It took a lot of strength to get to where she did—a lot of emotional strength. I don’t know if I could have done it.”
In her will, Alexander bequeathed $100,000 to support the establishment of a civil rights chair at Penn Law School.
Penn Law announced in 2007 the creation of the Raymond and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professorship in Civil Rights. It is the first chair in Penn Law history named for African Americans.
Funding was provided by hundreds of alumni, students, and friends of the Alexanders, a $1 million grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and a $100,000 gift from Philadelphia law firm Duane Morris.
A scholar of race, gender, and the law, Dorothy Roberts was named the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights in 2012.
“For me to hold a chair named after a pioneer for human rights, and civil rights, and racial justice, given how important social justice is to my own work, is very, very meaningful,” says Roberts, who is also a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor. “I certainly see her as an inspiration and a role model.”