A native Philadelphian and life-long champion of civil rights and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race or gender, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was a leader in the legal, political and civic arenas of her day. Among her many “firsts” was her place as the first Black-American woman to enroll in the School of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and earn the juris doctor degree. She was also a wife and mother and an unlikely comic book hero.
Aaron Albert Mossell I and Eliza Bowers with 5 of their children. From left to right are; Mary Mossell; Alvaretta Mossell; Charles Mossell; Aaron Albert Mossell II the father of Sadie Tanner Mossell (1898-1989); and Nathan Francis Mossell (1856-1946).
Members at 1921 Delta Sigma Theta’s national Convention, hosted by Gamma Chapter at the University of Pennsylvania. Shown left to right: front, Virginia Margaret Alexander, Julia Mae Polk, Sadie Tanner Mossell; row 2, Anna R. Johnson, Nellie Rathbone Bright, Pauline Alice Young.
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander – A Timeline
- 1898 Sadie Tanner Mossell was born on January 2 in Philadelphia to Aaron Albert Mossell and Mary Louise Tanner .
- 1916 She graduated from M Street High School in Washington, DC, and entered the University of Pennsylvania.
- 1918 She completed her undergraduate program at the University of Pennsylvania and was awarded a bachelor of science degree in education with senior honors.
- 1919 She earned a master of arts degree in economics at Penn and was awarded the Francis Sergeant Pepper Fellowship in economics, which enabled her to study for her doctorate.
- 1919-23 First National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated
- 1921 She became the first African American woman in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in economics. Her dissertation was The Standard of Living Among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia.
- 1921 Was elected the first president of the Grand Chapter, the national organization of the African-American sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
- 1921-1923 She worked as assistant actuary at the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, North Carolina.
- 1923 She returned to Philadelphia where she married Raymond Pace Alexander, the brother of her good friend and sorority sister from undergraduate school, Virginia Alexander.
- 1924 She became the first African American woman to enroll in University of Pennsylvania’s School of Law, where her father Aaron Albert Mossell had been the first African American to graduate. She was also the first African American woman to serve as associate editor of the Law Review.
- 1927-She became a pilot and flew to China for a meeting with the Chinese governor.
- 1927 She became the first African American woman to earn a law degree at Penn, pass the bar and practice law in Pennsylvania. Joined her husband’s Center City Philadelphia law firm, specializing in estate and family law.
- 1927-1931 She became the first African American woman to serve as assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia.
- 1936-1940 She served her second term as assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia.
- 1943-1947 She became the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.
- 1946-1965 She served as a member of the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission.
- 1947 Appointed to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights by President Harry S. Truman. The committee’s report, “To Secure These Rights,” served as the foundation of the civil-rights movement in America and was the basis for future civil-rights policy decisions and legislation.
- 1948 Named Woman of the Year in “Negro Heroes” a comic book published by the National Urban League in conjunction with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
- 1949 Chaired a special committee of the Fellowship Commission set up to ensure that a new city charter would include provisions guaranteeing equal treatment and equal opportunity in the city’s administration.
- 1952 Chairwoman of the Fellowship Commission committee, drafted a section of the Home Rule Charter of 1952, calling for the formation of a Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.
- 1959 Opened private law practice after her husband was appointed judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the first African-American to serve in this position. A quarter of her practice was dedicated to civil and probate work, while the rest of the time she focused on domestic relations, divorce, adoption and juvenile care.
- 1974 Awarded her fifth degree at the University of Pennsylvania, an honorary doctor of laws degree. This was the first of seven honorary degrees by colleges and universities.
- 1976 Retired from the active practice of law but joined the firm of Atkinson, Myers and Archie of counsel.
- 1978 Was appointed chairperson of the White House Conference on Aging by President Jimmy Carter and charged with addressing a range of social and economic needs of the elderly.
- 1989 Died on November 1 at age 91 after having been recognized, in her last decade, as one of Philadelphia’s leading citizens.
- “Sadie T. M. Alexander”, Washington Post, November 5, 1989. Retrieved on 2007-06-21. “Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, 91, who was appointed by President Truman to the Committee on Civil Rights in 1948, and by President Carter as chairman of his White House Conference on Aging in 1981, died Nov. 1 at her home in Philadelphia. She had Alzheimer’s disease. Mrs. Alexander, who is believed to be the first black woman to hold a doctorate in economics and to become a lawyer in Pennsylvania, founded a chapter of the Howard University-based black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and became its first national president. She was active nationally in the …”
- Delta Sigma Theta National Presidents. Retrieved on July 19, 2007.
- “Lawyer Sadie Alexander, a Black pioneer dies at 91.”, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1989. Retrieved on 2007-06-21. “Sadie T.M. Alexander, 91, the first black woman to practice law in Pennsylvania and an early fighter for civil rights, died Wednesday at Cathedral Village in Roxborough, where she had lived since 1983. She had been ill for several years with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and recently was weakened by pneumonia. During a lifetime of achievement, Dr. Alexander had early on become a woman of firsts. She was the first black woman to earn a doctorate at the …”