Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Ed’1918, G’1921, L’1927, Hon’1974 was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a PhD in Economics, and the first Black woman to practice law in Pennsylvania.
“She’s one of our most important alumni,” said Ted Ruger, Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law, “because she was a really determined and tremendous trailblazer. We’re very proud of our relationship with her.”
An inspiration to the generations of students who followed in her footsteps, Alexander endured brazen racism and sexism as a student and professional woman. As an undergraduate at Penn, Alexander was not permitted to check out library books. She was barred from eating in any restaurant or drug store on or near campus. Alexander brought her own lunch every day and ate by herself under the steps in the library. Initially, no one took her desire to pursue graduate study seriously — when she and another female student first tried to sit in on an economics class at the Wharton School, the professor immediately ordered them out of the room.
As a graduate student, Alexander was denied a fellowship after a librarian accused her of disturbing another student’s books, mistaking Alexander for another Black student. After graduating with her PhD, though she had studied economics and insurance, she found that no insurance company in the city would hire her. She could not even get a job teaching high school, as the Philadelphia public schools refused to employ Black people.
Undeterred, she returned to Penn to earn her law degree, though the Law School hardly welcomed her with open arms. The dean refused to acknowledge Alexander when he found himself in her presence. Though her grades earned her a place on the Law Review, the dean attempted to prevent her from taking the position. Fellow law students and faculty members successfully fought for her, and Alexander became the first Black woman to serve as an associate editor.
After being admitted to the bar, Alexander devoted much of her legal career to advancing civil rights. She was a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She helped create the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. She marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and attended the Black Panther Party’s Revolutionary People’s Convention at Temple University in 1970.
In this portrait by Alonzo Adams, whose work often features images of Black resistance and resilience, Alexander is depicted in her later years, looking confident and contented. The Law School also features another portrait of Alexander as well as one of her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander W’20.
Asked what advice she had for young Black students, Alexander said, “Don’t let anything stop you. 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.”