Skip to main content

“I could and I would”: Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarships honor life and legacy of trailblazing civil rights activist

February 10, 2021

Last semester, Dean Ted Ruger expressed the intention to create these scholarships thanks to the suggestion of Penn’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA).

As we embark on Black History Month, we are pleased to pay tribute to the legacy of Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Ed’1918, G’1921, L’1927, Hon’1974, the first Black woman to graduate from the Law School, by launching three new full tuition scholarships created in her honor. Last semester, Dean Ted Ruger expressed the intention to create these scholarships thanks to the suggestion of Penn’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA).

“Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander challenged stereotypes about Black people and women,” said Jocelyn A. K. Walcott L’22, BLSA Advocacy Chair. “She blazed paths in law, economics, and government. She overcame oppressive structures of racism and sexism, and in doing so, exposed the lies at their foundation. Throughout her life, she defended civil rights and empowered others. Dr. Alexander’s legacy is historical proof of Black excellence.”

Dr. Alexander embodied cross-disciplinary, groundbreaking academic and professional success in the face of overwhelming obstacles and discrimination. With resilience and determination, she knocked down doors of race and gender that would not willingly open, paving the way for future generations while affecting far-reaching changes in both the public and private sectors across various institutions in academia, economics, and civil rights. Dr. Alexander was a leader devoted to civic engagement and the pursuit of excellence in everything she did, with a key focus on advancing racial and economic justice.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Alexander made history. She was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a PhD in Economics. A few years later, after working as an actuary for an insurance company, Dr. Alexander returned to Penn and became the first Black woman to both graduate from the Law School and gain admission to the Pennsylvania bar.

A family of innovators

Born Sadie Tanner Mossell on January 2, 1898 in Philadelphia, Dr. Alexander was born into a highly accomplished family whose members had broken numerous racial barriers.

When it was time to begin her education, Dr. Alexander moved to Washington, D.C., with her uncle, Lewis Baxter Moore, the first African American to receive a PhD from Penn in 1896, who went on to serve as the Dean of Education at the historic Howard University. In Washington, Dr. Alexander attended M Street High School, one of the first all-Black high schools in America that gave students opportunities to attend lectures by Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Coleridge Taylor, and W.E.B. Du Bois and touted graduates that went on to attend college and later hold significant positions in education and the public sector.

M Street alumni were also precious resources for current students during Dr. Alexander’s time there. In a 1972 Pennsylvania Gazette article titled “A Clean Sweep: Reflections on the rocky road to winning a ‘broom award,’” Dr. Alexander wrote that students were “constantly exposed to talks by graduates” who were “living examples of what was possible if we applied our ability.”

Her years in the Capital also gave her opportunities to spend time at Howard, whose faculty, administrators, and frequent guests greatly influenced her. When she elected to return to Philadelphia and attend Penn for her undergraduate studies, she’d later write in “A Clean Sweep” that those figures “put in us a determination that nobody would beat us.”

“I could and I would”

Dr. Alexander started her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education in September of 1915. The first year of undergraduate studies for any student is difficult and challenging, however Dr. Alexander also faced a wave of overt racism and discrimination not only from fellow students, but from university educators, staff, and administrators. She wrote about feelings of alienation in “A Clean Sweep,” where she recounts being subjected to racial slurs, or otherwise completely ignored by fellow students while getting lost trying to navigate campus.

Additionally, she and other Black students and residents in the area were denied the opportunity to check out library books or even receive a hot meal on campus or at neighborhood establishments. While those experiences were painful memories to revisit, Dr. Alexander, ever undeterred, reflected that “Such circumstances made a student either a dropout or a survivor so strong that she could not be overcome, regardless of the indignities.”

As time went on, she continued to make her way, finding friends and excelling academically as a brilliant student, while standing up to the blatant injustice she experienced and witnessed all around her. As a sophomore Dr. Alexander scheduled a meeting with Penn’s provost at the time, asking him to use his power and influence to condemn any local restaurants that would not serve Penn students, no matter who they were, while also requesting the University to provide an on-campus venue for meals for Black students and those who could not afford to bring food in. Her request was denied.

Dr. Alexander was still determined to go into graduate studies, a dream that many educators did not take seriously despite her academic success, and at the time many courses (aside from graduate and PhD programs) were only made available to men. For instance, when she and another female student, Mary Stewart, sat in on a class at the Wharton School because of their interest in economics and insurance, the professor immediately ordered them out on the grounds that he did not teach women.

In these difficult times, the memories of the influential leaders and educators she encountered at Howard and M Street should not be overlooked, as they helped instill in her the mantra, “I could and I would,” writing in “A Clean Sweep”: “When I entered Penn’s School of Education in September 1915, I was convinced I had the ability to succeed.”

In her remaining undergraduate years, she befriended Raymond Pace Alexander (the first Black graduate of the Wharton School whom she’d eventually marry) and received Distinguished markings in all ten courses of her third and final year of undergraduate studies, which she accelerated to lessen the financial burden on her family and elderly grandfather, who provided her tuition. Frank Pierrepont Graves, dean of the School of Education, presented Dr. Alexander with a tiny ceremonial broom, in lieu of the Phi Beta Kappa key she was wrongfully denied, for making a “clean sweep of D’s.”

A Time of Firsts and A Return to Penn

With the aid of a graduate scholarship, she received her master’s degree in economics in three years. A fellowship enabled her to continue her studies for her doctorate, which she received on June 6, 1921, becoming the first Black woman to earn a PhD in economics in the United States. Her dissertation was titled, “The Standard of Living Among One Hundred Negro Migrants Families in Philadelphia, 1921.” During this time, Dr. Alexander was inducted into the Gamma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., the third chapter of the organization and the first Black sorority on Penn’s campus, where she was also elected to become the organization’s first National President.

Dr. Alexander’s graduate studies weren’t without significant challenges, as she was again discriminated against while pursuing the Harrison Fellowship, one of the few fellowships offered to women at Penn at the time. Despite department support, she was ultimately denied due to the testimony of a librarian who accused her of disturbing another student’s books, mistaking Dr. Alexander for another Black student. Upon graduation, despite holding a doctorate’s degree, she struggled to find employment in economics anywhere in Philadelphia, where many companies refused to hire a Black woman. Eventually she found work as an assistant actuary in Durham, North Carolina with the Black-owned Mutual Life Insurance Company, where she spent two years.

She returned to Philadelphia afterwards, marrying Raymond Pace Alexander, who had completed his law degree at Harvard University and started his own practice in Philadelphia to serve Black defendants on the front lines of civil rights. Realizing a desire to pursue similar ambitions, and since opportunities in economics for her still remained wrongly sparse, she enrolled in the School of Law at Penn in 1924, the first Black woman to do so.

Here she also faced racism and discrimination, most notably from the Law School’s Dean William E. Mikell, who blatantly ignored her presence when they shared the same space and attempted to bar her from the clubs of other women students. Despite the obstacles she faced at every turn, Dr. Alexander achieved such high grades that she earned a place on the Law Review in her first year. Dean Mikell attempted to keep her from taking her position on the Law Review, but thanks to the advocacy of fellow students and faculty members, she was ultimately the first Black woman to serve as associate editor. She graduated from the Law School in 1927.

Dr. Alexander was also the first Black woman to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania, joining her husband at their private law firm. They practiced law together until 1959 – pursuing better race relations in their native Philadelphia and acting as members of various service organizations like the Parent and Teacher Association (PTA), American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Urban League, all while remaining vitally important leaders and voices during the civil rights movement.

In 1965, the pair returned to Penn’s campus, along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other legal and civil rights leaders for a Law Day observance panel event discussing the “Rule of Law,” just months before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.

Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander died of complications from pneumonia and Alzheimer’s Disease in November of 1989 at the age of 91.

An important legacy

Today, Dr. Alexander is remembered as a trailblazer and pioneer who broke barriers of race and gender. She reached the heights of success in her respective fields during her 50 years as a lawyer and civil rights activist, serving on President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights and as chairwoman of the White House Conference on Aging in 1981 under President Jimmy Carter. Twice, from 1928 to 1930 and again from 1934 to 1938, she was appointed Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. She also formed a legal aid bureau to assist African Americans who could not afford lawyers. Two decades later, Dr. Alexander headed the city’s Commission on Human Rights.

To honor the legacy of Dr. Alexander’s significant accomplishments at Penn, the University partnered with the School District of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to launch the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School in 2001, a K-12 school in West Philadelphia “dedicated to providing high-quality public education to neighborhood children through a child-centered, research-based program.” Penn BLSA also commemorates and celebrates Dr. Alexander’s life and legacy in an annual conference held in her name, with this year’s Hidden Truths: Addressing a 13th Amendment Ambiguity that Created America’s Carceral State, marking the 33rd annual occurrence of the event.

As recently as December 2020, publications like The Economist and NPR’s “Planet Money” published op-eds and features touting the rediscovery and re-examination of Dr. Alexander and her relevant-as-ever economic ideas. She may have been one of the first people to introduce the idea that everyone who wants a job should be able to get a job, and argued a full economy was the only solution to the economic subjugation of Black Americans; a means to achieve racial equality and unite the working class in a time where the majority of the country was still segregated. Dr. Alexander believed that once people were free from material wants and an inability to fulfill basic needs for survival like food, clothing, housing and basic education, they could reach their full professional and personal potential and not become disillusioned with society and government.

At the same time Dr. Alexander is remembered and revered today, many barriers still exist in the field of economics for Black Americans, especially Black women. In that vein, the Sadie Collective, an initiative founded in 2018 named in honor of Dr. Alexander, seeks to empower and equip Black women in quantitative sciences, addressing the pipeline and pathway problems in economics, finance, data science, and public policy through curated content creation, programming, and mentorship.

An eye toward the future: Announcing the Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarships

Over 30 years since her passing, during an historic election year in the midst of a global pandemic that’s further illustrated the many layers of racial inequities and economic disparities still present throughout much of our society and legal system, the work and legacy of Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander is more important than ever.

For this reason, the creation of the Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarships is vital to the Law School’s commitment to continuing to build a more inclusive educational environment, while working to dismantle the legacy of racial and economic injustice in this country.

Applicants who have been admitted to the JD Program for the Fall of 2022 are eligible to apply for the Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarships. The scholarships will be awarded annually to incoming JD students.

Learn more about the Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarships.