A song for Sadie Alexander, a Penn alumna of great esteem

Seventeen-year-old Sadie Tanner Mossell arrived at Penn in the fall of 1915 filled 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.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander outside Houston Hall.

Born in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1898, into an upper-middle-class African-American family of distinction, she was the youngest child of Mary Louise Tanner and Aaron Mossell. Her father, in 1888, became the first black person to graduate from Penn Law School.

Her maternal grandfather, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a well-respected scholar of religion and a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He and his wife Sarah had seven children: Mary, Hallie, Belle, Bertha, Sadie, Carl, and Henry. Hallie Tanner graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was the first woman to practice medicine in the state of Alabama.

Henry Ossawa Tanner studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and blossomed into an internationally renowned painter.

Mossell’s Aunt Sadie (the first name is common amongst the Tanners) was the wife of Lewis Baxter Moore, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Penn.

Nathan Francis Mossell, Mossell’s paternal uncle, was the first African American to graduate from Penn’s School of Medicine, and helped establish Philadelphia’s Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, the second black hospital in the United States.

During her adolescence, Mossell and her mother migrated between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In Philadelphia during her elementary years, she attended the Blaine School and lived with her grandfather in his three-story home at 2908 Diamond St.

Bishop Tanner, a graduate of Pittsburgh’s Avery College and Western Theological Seminary, had a parade of distinguished friends, such as priests and rabbis, who would visit his home and talk current affairs and theological opinions.

Living in the nation’s capital for her high school years, Mossell went to the prestigious M Street High School. She lived with her Aunt Sadie and Uncle Lewis on the campus of Howard University, a historically black college where her uncle served as dean of education.

M Street High School produced such African-American luminaries as William Henry Hastie, the first African-American federal judge; Robert C. Weaver, the first African American to serve in a presidential cabinet; and Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief attorney for the NAACP and the mentor to former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The M Street teachers and administrators, graduates of the leading universities, invited prominent black intellectuals, scholars, and activists to speak to students, including Booker T. WashingtonW.E.B. Du Bois, classical composer and musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Mary Church Terrell, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP.

At her uncle’s house at Howard, Mossell was introduced to the leading black educators of the day—faculty and administrators from historically black colleges and universities—who sought the counsel of Baxter Moore. They encouraged her to return to Philadelphia and, like her uncle, get a doctorate from Penn. 

“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,” Mossell recalled in a 1972 reflection in the Pennsylvania Gazette. “I recall praying every night beginning that fall: ‘God, give me the strength to do my assignment the very best I have the ability,’ and, ‘Dear Lord, teach me to walk alone and not be lonely, knowing Thou art at my side.’”

Mossell was awarded a scholarship to Howard University, but enrolled in Penn’s School of Education at her mother’s behest. Her mother did not attend college, but was very educated, and believed the University would provide her academically gifted child with better opportunities for graduate training.

Adjusting to life at Penn was not easy.

At Howard, Mossell knew everybody. At Penn, she 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.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
In her youth, Alexander lived with her grandfather in his three-story home at 2908 Diamond St.

The faculty was supportive, but to her fellow Penn students, Mossell was invisible. She was a woman of substance, of flesh and bone, yet she was invisible simply because her classmates refused to see her.

No one spoke to her in class, or on walks to College Hall, or to the library. She had no one to discuss assignments with, or to show her around, and she wasn’t invited to any student social functions.

Barred from eating in any restaurant or drug store on or near campus, which were all segregated, she had to pack her lunch every day, and would eat by herself under the steps in the library.

“Let us imagine you came from outer space and entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. You spoke perfect English, but no one spoke to you. Such circumstances made a student either a dropout, or a survivor so strong that she could not be overcome, regardless of the indignities,” she said. “I was determined that someday, I knew not the day, I would make these students, the faculty, and the administration recognize me in some manner—at least respect my ability.”

Mossell’s mother did all within her power to encourage and support her daughter during her trying and lonesome times, and let her study without distractions. She had the cellar of the house “perfectly cleaned”and finished with a desk and light for Mossell to do her coursework.

In the spring of her freshman year, Mossell finally made a friend, Mary Stewart, a student in her class. They became close, chatting about assignments, comparing lecture notes, and collaborating on term papers.

“This was the first thaw in the ice that covered my freshman year,” she said.

Mossell finished her first year at Penn with good marks, unbowed, and resolute.

In the fall of 1917, Raymond Alexander and his younger sister Virginia, both African American, enrolled at Penn. Raymond entered the Wharton School; Virginia attended the School of Education. The siblings were from Philadelphia and had won scholarships to the University. Mossell and Virginia Alexander met while playing tennis, and Virginia told her about her brother.

While in the library one day, Mossell saw a man who fit Virginia’s description, approached him, and asked him if he was Raymond; he was. She introduced herself, and offered to show him where to find the Wharton textbooks; he accepted.

Mossell, Virginia Alexander, and Julia Polk, another black female student, became lunch buddies—they joined her under the steps in the library. The black male students would stop by from time to time. Raymond came often; he and Mossell began dating.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
In 1918, Alexander received the first of her five degrees from Penn.

During one particular outing over Christmas break, Raymond Alexander and Mossell suffered an insult that would stay with them, and serve as motivation.

A friend of Mossell’s from Cornell came to visit and they went on a double date with Alexander’s friend to a theater. The friend, a light-skinned black man, went to pick up the tickets. The ticket master, mistaking him for a white man, sold them to him.

When Mossell, Alexander, and their friends arrived at the theater, and the employees realized everyone was black, they told them there was a mistake, and they couldn’t come in.

The foursome began to speak in fluent foreign languages—Alexander in Spanish, Mossell in French, and her friend in German, which led the manager to believe that they were of African descent, but not African Americans, and he let them inside.

“Raymond and I said that we were determined to see that Philadelphia was better than that,” she said in a 1971 interview. “Our interest in better race relations had naturally come as a result of our experiences and our desire to see that this doesn’t continue to happen.”

Mossell excelled in her sophomore and junior year courses, 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.”

Mossell graduated in three years with honors in 1918. She continued her studies at Penn and, with the aid of a graduate scholarship, received her master’s degree in economics in 1919. A Francis Sargeant Pepper Fellowship in Economics enabled her to study for her doctorate, which she received on June 6, 1921.

She was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics, and was showered with acclaim.

“I can well remember marching down Broad Street from Mercantile Hall to the Academy of Music when there were photographers from all over the world taking my picture,” she said. “It was a great day not only for me, but all women.”

The euphoria Mossell felt from receiving her doctorate vanished as soon as she started looking for a job. She 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 insurance company in the city would hire a black person.

Her Penn professors called around and recommended her for positions, to no avail. Blackballed from Philadelphia’s insurance industry, in September of 1921 she accepted a position as an assistant actuary with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, N.C., the largest black-owned insurance company in the nation.

Mossell’s days in Durham were without joy. She had never lived south of Washington, D.C., and missed Raymond, and was unaccustomed to the menacing racial prejudice of the Deep South. Raymond Alexander, who enrolled at Harvard Law School after he graduated from Wharton, wrote her daily, and asked her to be his wife; she said yes.

Raymond graduated from Harvard Law in June of 1923, returned to Philadelphia, passed the Pennsylvania bar, and opened a small law practice. Mossell came home to join him. They married on Nov. 29, 1923, and she took the name Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, usually styling it “Sadie T.M. Alexander.”

Sadie 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 the public schools, like the city’s insurance companies, refused to employ African Americans. She helped out with the Parent Teacher Association and the NAACP, but found the work unfulfilling. Contemplating her next move, she decided to become a lawyer.

Backed by three degrees of eminence and a strong letter of 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. A law degree, she believed, would enable her to find work regardless of her gender or skin color.

She enjoyed her three years at Penn Law, notwithstanding the reoccurrence of the loneliness and invisibility of her undergraduate years. While studying for her doctorate, Alexander says she was the “darling of the faculty,” who rallied around her on her quest for her historic Ph.D.

Penn Law did not open its arms to her. She would take classes until noon, and then return home and study alone until 6 p.m.

She was, however, now allowed to eat lunch on campus. The city had progressed enough to allow African Americans to enter corner drugstores.

On weekends, she would discuss cases with her husband, and work at his law office to gain professional experience.

Sharp and studious, Alexander 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.

Breaking down barrier after barrier, 29-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.

The Alexander law office was located on the second floor of a building Raymond had refurbished at 19th and Chestnut streets. All of his associates and partners were graduates of Harvard or Yale.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander in the 1930s.

One of the most talented partners at the firm initially objected to working with a woman, to which Raymond replied: “Then I guess you would like to resign.” The partner silenced his protest and remained.

In February of 1928, Sadie Alexander began working as an assistant solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. Soon after, she found out she was pregnant. Immediately, she recalled in a 1977 interview with Walter M. Phillips, she “felt the burdens of the world on my shoulders, and feared having to give up my job, with people saying, ‘Isn’t it just like a woman, to go off and get pregnant.’”

Her husband thought she should resign her post as soon as she started showing, but she “refused and stood firm,” she said, “both for myself and for all woman.”

The Office of the Solicitor assigned Alexander to Orphans Court. Representing the city in the collection of claims and taxes, she was the sole woman in the office and only the second woman in its history. She served from 1928-30 and 1934-38, before returning to her husband’s thriving private practice.

At the Alexander firm, Sadie specialized in family law, probate law, divorce, child support, adoption, juvenile delinquents, and contested and non-contested estates. At times, she averaged 100 cases per year.

Her clients, some referred by the biggest law firms in the city, were men and women of every faith and ethnicity. It was not unusual for her to work 12- to 14-hour days, and large portions of her weekends, 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, she argued appeals before the full Orphans’ Court bench, the state Supreme Court, and the United States District Court. 

Black veterans returning from service in World War II were greeted more like foreign enemy combatants than national heroes, especially in the South. According to the Library of Congress, some whites, mainly in the South, “felt that these veterans needed to be terrorized into submission, whether they wore the nation’s uniform or not.”

Following the mass lynching of veteran George Dorsey, his wife Mae, and another black couple in Georgia in 1946, and an incident in South Carolina in which white police officers “gouged out both eyes” of a black veteran, leaders in the African-American community demanded that President Harry S. Truman take action.

Sadie Alexander
In 1946, President Harry Truman appointed Alexander to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. She was one of the committee’s 15 members.

On Dec. 5, 1946, Truman signed an executive order creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, whose members he tasked with recommending legislation and procedures for protecting the civil rights of all Americans.

Alexander, 49, was appointed by Truman as one of the 15 committee members. She received a call one day from Philleo Nash, a special assistant to the president, who told her about the committee and asked if she would serve.

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 in public hearings and private meetings on issues such as lynchings, 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 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 the United States, including a Congressional act against police brutality, an anti-lynching law, a review of wartime evacuation and detention, the desegregation of the military, and the passage of a voting rights act.

“Mr. President: Your Committee has reviewed the American heritage, and we have found in it again the great goals of human freedom and equality under just laws,” the committee members wrote. “We have surveyed the flaws in the nation’s record and have found them to be serious. We have considered what government’s appropriate role should be in the securing of our rights, and have concluded that it must assume greater leadership. We believe that the time for action is now.”

Truman supported the committee’s findings in his “Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights” on Feb. 2, 1948, and signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the military, in July of that year.

During their days at Penn, Sadie and Raymond Alexander devoted themselves to joining the fight to uplift African Americans in Philadelphia, and ease their grief and woe, as soon as they got their education. Armed with law degrees, they spent their entire adult lives fighting for black people.

Both activists were integral to the passage of Pennsylvania’s Equal Rights Law of 1935, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations—including theaters.

All throughout her 50-plus-year law career, Sadie 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.

Raymond Alexander, the city’s leading black ­criminal defense and civil rights attorney, was counsel for the NAACP and instrumental in the desegregation of public schools.

Sadie Alexander 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.

Unchained to any one train of thought or ideology, Sadie Alexander marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Ala., in March of 1965, and attended the Black Panther Party’s Revolutionary People’s Convention at Temple University in September of 1970. 

“My business is to serve my community as well as my clients,” she once said.

Sadie Alexander’s accolades seem endless. She was a founder of the National Bar Association, the country’s oldest and largest network of predominately African-American attorneys and judges. She was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., an African-American sorority that now has 1,000 collegiate and alumnae chapters in the nation and around the world.

For 25 years, she served on the board of the National Urban League.

She earned 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.”

Raymond Alexander died of a heart attack in his chambers on Nov. 24, 1974. Sadie considered retiring, but was recruited to join the firm of Atkinson, Myers, Archie and Wallace. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her chair of the White House Conference on Aging.

Sadie Alexander passed away on Nov. 1, 1989, at age 91 in a nursing home in Roxborough from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She is survived by her two daughters, cherished members of the University community.

In an interview in 1981, Alexander was asked what advice she would give to young black women and men.

“Don’t let anything stop you,” she said. “There will be times when you’ll be disappointed, but you can’t stop. Make yourself the best that you can make out of what you are. The very best.”

Of all the historic collections in the University Archives and Records Center, hundreds of collected works passing through nearly 300 years, Director Mark Frazier Lloyd says the Alexander family collection is without question the most heavily utilized.

Donated by the Alexander family in 1987, the collection contains the papers of Sadie Alexander, Raymond Alexander, the Alexander law firm, Virginia Alexander, and those of Sadie’s sister, Elizabeth Mossell Anderson, who also graduated from Penn.

Lloyd, who has known various members of the Alexander family for more than 40 years and can recite the entire Alexander family history from memory, says the collection is so popular because it is so rare.

“There are very few large collections that document the life of the African-American professional in the 20th century, particularly in the first half of the 20th century,” he says.

Director of the University Archives since 1984, Lloyd says he could see the enormous value of the collection for research, publication, and teaching on the African-American experience in the 20th century from the instant it was described to him. He was the lead representative of the University in negotiating the gift of the Alexander papers to Penn.

“I knew it was a winner so I pursued it pretty vigorously,” he says.

With reverence and honor, Penn Law School rejoices and hails the glorious 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.”

Sadie Alexander
Penn President Martin Meyerson presents Alexander with an honorary degree at the University’s 218th Commencement on May 20, 1974.

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 crisis, civil rights in the 1990s, and applications of the 14th Amendment. The most recent daylong conference, held on Feb. 11, was titled, “Social Media and the Law.”

Tonique Garrett, social media co-chair of BLSA 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.

A second-year student from Philadelphia, Garrett attended Howard University for her undergraduate studies.

“I sometimes feel a little alone as far as the black community at Penn Law, but then I always just think about what it must have been like for her to be here with no black community at all,” she says.

Conference co-chair Erica Clark, a second-year student from Atlanta, 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.”

Ruger, the Penn Law dean, says Alexander’s “relentlessness” is what stands out the most, her unwavering commitment and pursuit of knowledge.

“When you look at the different degrees she had—with the Ph.D. in economics and the law degree—and think about how difficult her road would be to be a pioneer, it just shows her incredible hunger for knowledge and education,” he says. “All of us who work here and who go to school here should aspire to have some measure of her dedication to learning. We know that our students don’t face the barriers that she did, but we hope they have at least a part of her relentless curiosity and desire to learn.”

In her will, Sadie Alexander bequeathed $100,000 to support the establishment of a civil rights chair at Penn Law School.

Sadie Alexander
Sadie Alexander in her graduation dress in 1921.

Penn Law announced, at the annual Sadie conference in February 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, secured by then-State Rep. Dwight Evans, and a $100,000 gift from Philadelphia-based law firm Duane Morris. Nolan Atkinson, a partner at the firm, was a former colleague of Alexander. 

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 July of 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,” Roberts says. “I certainly see her as an inspiration and a role model.”

As she settled into her chair, Roberts says she noted interesting similarities between Alexander and herself. Alexander began her legal career working in the Orphans’ Court and Roberts has spent a good part of her career advocating for children and families involved in the child welfare system.

Alexander was an interdisciplinary, intersectional scholar, studying racial and gender justice, and Roberts, who is also a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with an appointment in the School of Arts & Sciences, is the same, researching the interlocking systems and institutions that discriminate and oppress social groups.

“If you think about it, Sadie Alexander saw the value of interdisciplinary work in the 1920s, long before law schools had become interdisciplinary places of learning,” Roberts says. “She was so far ahead of her time in terms of her academic achievements, and perspectives as well.”

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, or Penn Alexander, opened in September 2001 in West Philadelphia through a collaboration between Penn, the School District of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Located at 4209 Spruce St., the award-winning K-8 public school was nameless during its first year of operation and known as the University of Pennsylvania-Assisted PreK-8 Neighborhood School, or the Penn-Assisted School. In September of 2002, with input from the community, students, their parents, and founding Principal Sheila Sydnor, the school was named after Sadie Alexander.

Sadie Alexander
Sadie Alexander in her academic gown on June 15, 1921.

“She represented everything that the school stood for,” says Ann Kreidle, planning coordinator at Penn Alexander, who has been at the school since its creation. “She had such high standards for herself and for what she wanted to accomplish, despite the numerous unimaginable obstacles that she faced. We want that for our students.”

From the time of its christening, administrators at Penn Alexander have ensured that the entire school community—students, faculty, and staff—know about the life of Sadie Alexander and have a personal connection to her and her legacy.   

Dean of Students Megan Wapner, at Penn Alexander since 2002, says students researched Sadie Alexander extensively after the school was named in her honor. The older students created biographies for the younger students to help educate them about who she was and what she stood for, and the books were kept in classroom libraries in order to inform succeeding schoolchildren.

“It’s something that is constantly being discussed in multiple contexts in the school,” Wapner says.

Michael Farrell, in his first year as principal of Penn Alexander, says during his first week on the job last summer, Kreidle brought him to the University Archives and Records Center to view Sadie Alexander’s papers in the Alexander family collection.

“It was this really exciting moment to see how excited and invested Penn was in preserving who Sadie was,” he says.

As he was going through the extensive interview process, Farrell says he did a lot of research on Alexander, which amplified his interest in the position.

“So often so many of us go to institutions with names that we don’t know who these people are, so it was exciting to me to think about the potential of leading a school that was named after someone who had such an impact,” he says.

Penn Alexander students have visited the Archives as well to learn more about Sadie Alexander. Kreidle and middle school teacher Julie Mikolajewski recently took a group of eighth graders to the Archives to view a speech Alexander prepared on the desegregation of schools in Philadelphia, and notes she was preparing on civil rights and her work on Truman’s committee.

“In addition to the values of perseverance, and rising to the occasion, and meeting these high expectations, the civil rights aspects of her work couldn’t be more timely,” Kreidle says.

Penn Alexander students take pride in their school bearing Sadie Alexander’s name.

Mitchell Harrill-Wright, an eighth grade student at Penn Alexander and vice president of the school’s Student Council, says Alexander was a “force of nature who fought for what she believed in even though the odds were continually stacked against her.”

Eighth-grader Amara Okongwu says attending a school named after such a successful and determined trailblazer “motivates [Penn Alexander] students working toward our own personal and academic success.”

Student Council President Zara Kelemen, an eighth grader at Penn Alexander, says Sadie Alexander “was a woman of exemplary character who displayed determination in the face of adversity.

“Through her accomplishments, Alexander paved the way for many more women of color,” she says. “The fact that my school is named after her shows that my school supports the ideal that our differences make us stronger; that no matter one’s ethnicity or religion, anyone can achieve their dreams.”