Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
Sadie Tanner Mossell receiving PhD 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

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989), was an American lawyer who was the first African-American 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, following in her father's footsteps.[1] She was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, serving from 1919 to 1923.[2][3]

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). In 1979, Jimmy Carter appointed her as chair of the White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA). She served on the board of the National Urban League for 25 years.[4]


Photo of Sadie Tanner Mossell
Sadie Tanner Mossell 1918

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

Mossell attended high school in Washington, D.C., at the M Street School, now known as Dunbar High School, graduating in 1915.[5][6]

Mossell returned to Philadelphia to study at the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1918. There, she faced numerous hardships, due to her race and gender, such as poor advising, false accusations of plagiarism, and other students stealing her intellectual property.[7] 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 first African-American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D from an American university.[8][9][10]

Finding it difficult to get professorship work in Philadelphia as an African-American even with her doctorate,[4] Mossell decided to take an actuarial job with the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, North Carolina, and worked there for two years.

In 1919, Sadie Tanner Mossell was elected the first national President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Mossell Alexander also served as the legal advisor to Delta Sigma Theta sorority for 35 years.[11] She was in contact with the Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta since 1915 when she arrived at the University of Pennsylvania. However, she needed five students to charter a chapter of the sorority, which was not possible until 1918. In March 1918, the Gamma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta was established with Mossell as its first President. At the request of the Alpha Chapter, the four existing chapters of Delta Sigma Theta were called to convene at Howard University in December 1919. The sorority planned to host their meetings in the women's dormitory on campus until Mossell's uncle Lewis Baxter Moore offered his office as a meeting place. At this convention, the Grand Chapter of the sorority was established, taking the sorority from a loose federation of chapters to a national body. Under, Mossell's leadership the Sorority expanded to new locales in the West, the South, and further into the Midwest and Northeast. She also initiated Delta's first national program, May Week.[12]

In 1923, Mossell married Raymond Pace Alexander shortly after he was admitted to the bar, then returned with him to Philadelphia. Mossell received job offers from several Black colleges and universities, but none of them were located in Philadelphia, and she had no desire to leave her new family. So she stayed home for a year, did volunteer work, and eventually entered law school.[4] She was the first African-American woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Law School.[9] In 1927, she was its first African-American woman graduate, and the first to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.[5]

Mossell Alexander practiced law from 1927 until her retirement in 1982. Upon admission to the Bar, she joined her husband's law practice as partner, 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 1934–1938. From 1943–1947, she was the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.[9] She was appointed to the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia, serving from 1952–1968. In 1959, when her husband was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, she opened her own law office. She continued to practice law independently until her husband's death in 1974.[4] In 1976, she joined the firm of Atkinson, Myers, and Archie as a general counsel, where she remained 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 in 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.[13] Bishop Tanner and his wife had seven children, including Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), who became a noted painter, and Hallie Tanner Johnson, the first female physician to practice medicine in Alabama[4] and who established the Nurses' School and Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.[5]

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 a one year old, he abandoned his family and moved to Wales.[14] Her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell (1856–1946) was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.[5]

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.[5]

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 four premature children, with only the last two surviving. They were able to raise two daughters:[4] 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 her divorce with Epps, in 1971 Rae Pace Alexander married Thomas Minter, and they had two sons together.[15]

Views and activities

This graph shows the inequality of real median US household income by race: 1967 to 2011, in 2011 dollars.[16]

According to Nina Banks,[17] Alexander's opposition to racial oppression was within a 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.[17]

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 for government regulation to smooth fluctuations in the business cycle, modification of tariffs, regulation of public utilities, and regulation of securities and securities markets.[17]

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 1949, Alexander and six other Philadelphians formed the Citizens' Council on Democratic Rights to "protect and extend the enjoyment of human rights." In 1951, joined by Henry W. Sawyer, the Council became the Greater Philadelphia Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union; Alexander continued to serve on that organization's Board of Directors for many years.[18] 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.[17]

In a 1981 interview she did with the Geriatric Nursing journal about her position as chair of the WHCoA, Alexander expressed her disapproval of anti-abortion legislation. She advocated for better benefits for nurses and stressed their vitality to the healthcare system. She also expressed that everyone, no matter their age or educational level, can add value to the economy with the proper support.[4]

Legacy and honors

Penn Alexander public elementary school, 2016