Historical Markers
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989) Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
700 Westview Street, Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

"I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down; because I knocked all of them down."
-Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, 1977

Sadie T. M. Alexander, (right) and her sister, Elizabeth Mossell Anderson, studio portrait photograph, as small children, c. 1900.
Sadie T. M. Alexander, (right) and her sister, Elizabeth Mossell Anderson, circa...
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 2, 1898, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander spent her life knocking down doors to raise the status of African Americans and to eradicate the color line that segregated the black community in Philadelphia and the nation.

Formal portrait, in academic gown
Sadie T. M. Alexander, formal portrait, in academic gown, June 15 1921.
Alexander came from a distinguished Philadelphia family. Her uncle, Dr. Nathan Mossell, was a founder of the Frederick Douglass Hospital, Philadelphia's first African American hospital. Louise Tanner, her mother, was the daughter of African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Benjamin Tanner, founding editor of the nation's first African American scholarly journal, The African Methodist Episcopal Review. And her mother's brother was markerHenry O. Tanner, the famous American painter."My background," she later recalled, "prepared me to face opposition with strong determination to attain my goal but without spending time or energy on my rancor."

Her father, Aaron Mossell, was the first African American to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and then became one of Philadelphia's most prominent black attorneys and civil rights' leaders. He struggled, however, to make a living because of the reluctance of both whites and African Americans to employ the services of a black lawyer.

After he abandoned the family when Sadie was an infant, her mother took the children to live with her family in Washington, D.C. Sadie then split her time between her aunt and uncle's home on Howard University's campus and her grandparents' house in Philadelphia. With her grandparents' financial support she entered the University of Pennsylvania in the fall 1915.

Head and shoulders,  portrait photograph, as a young man.
Raymond Pace Alexander, 1917.
At Penn, the few white women who attended the school ignored her. "You spoke perfect English but no one spoke to you," she later remembered. "Circumstances made a student either a dropout or a survivor so strong that she could not overcome, regardless of the indignities. I was determined that some day, I would make these students, the faculty, and the administration recognize me in some manner- at least respect my ability."

Despite the difficult circumstances, Alexander graduated in 1918 with honors in just three years. Continuing her studies, she became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a doctoral degree in economics, obtaining her Ph.D. from Penn in 1921.

For her doctoral dissertation, "The Standard of Living Among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia," she analyzed the economic status of the southern blacks who had been migrating to Philadelphia since World War I. Just twenty years after markerW.E.B Du Bois conducted his path-breaking sociological study of The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a young Sadie Mossell argued that segregation prevented black Americans from prospering and fitting into the mainstream of American life.

A man and young woman standing outdoors pose for photo.
flip zoom
Raymond Pace Alexander and Sadie T. M. Alexander, circa 1930.
Unable to find a job commensurate with her qualifications, Mossell in 1921 took a position with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. After two lonely years in Durham, North Carolina, she returned to Philadelphia to marry her college sweetheart, Raymond Pace Alexander, who was studying at Harvard Law School while Mossell worked on her doctoral degree at Penn. Shortly after graduating from Harvard and passing the Pennsylvania bar exam, Alexander opened his own practice in Philadelphia. There, like other black attorneys, he encountered hostile white juries, prosecutors, and judges.

After a year of domestic life during which she later recalled, "I almost lost my mind," Sadie entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School, despite the obstacles presented by both her race and her gender. After graduating in 1927, she became the first African-American woman to pass the Pennsylvania bar, then joined her husband in one of the earliest husband-wife legal teams in the United States.

Together, the Alexanders attacked the color barrier in downtown restaurants, theaters, and hotels. In the early 1930s, Raymond made headlines when his successful lawsuit against segregated school systems in Chester County school districts marked an end to legal segregation in Pennsylvania public schools. At the same time, Sadie emerged as a driving force in the National Urban League.

Standing before a  crowd,   (L to R), Mrs. Mason, daughter Frances, Mr. Mason, son Benjamin Jr. and Raymond Pace Alexander, Phil. Lawyer, counsel for the Masons who introduced them.
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Mason with lawyer Raymond Pace Alexander at the dedication...
In order to eliminate "coloreds only" sections in theatres, the Alexanders helped draft the 1935 Pennsylvania state public accommodations law, prohibiting discrimination in public places. As dedicated members of the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), they fought for black equality in housing, education, and employment. Working with one of the city's oldest black newspapers, the Philadelphia Tribune, they lobbied hard to pressure businesses and schools to hire blacks on an equal basis with whites.

Sadie T.M. Alexander with President Harry S. Truman and other members of the Truman Commission on Human Rights, group portrait
flip zoom
Sadie T.M. Alexander with President Harry S. Truman and other members of the...
Sadie's efforts also won her national attention. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed Alexander to the President's committee on the Civil Rights of All Races and Faiths, making her the first black woman to serve on a presidential commission.

Established to prepare a report on the best means to protect African Americans' civil rights, the committee wrote a path-breaking report, To Secure These Rights, which served as the basis for future policy decisions and legislation. In 1948, the National Urban League chose Alexander as its "Woman of the Year" and presented her story in a comic book for black children.

From 1946 to 1960, Alexander also served on the Philadelphia Fellowship committee. As its chair, she ensured that the city's new Home Rule Charter of 1952 guaranteed equal treatment and opportunities within the administration.

The legal partnership between Sadie and Raymond Alexander lasted until 1959, when Raymond was appointed as a judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Despite her busy schedule of law cases, Sadie remained committed to numerous civil causes throughout the 1960s, serving as chairperson for the Commission for Human Relations in Philadelphia, and working tirelessly for the Philadelphia Bar Association.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed her chairperson, at the age of eighty-one, of the White House Conference on Aging. President Reagan, however, removed her from the position in 1981, before the conference took place. Alexander continued to practice law in Philadelphia until she turned eighty-five.

In November of 1989 Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander died at the age of ninety-one. Speaking from experience, she left young black women and men with these words: "Don't let anything stop you. There will be times when you'll be disappointed, but you can't stop. Make yourself the very best that you can make of what you are. The very best."
Back to Top