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 Question of the Month

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

April 2007

Q:  Our children are inundated with negative images from the past and present. This is particularly true of young African American girls. Why not give information about positive role models like Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander? I know that is not your focus?

-- Grandville Moyers, DeKalb, Illinois

Sadie AlexanderA: 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 African-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.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

1898 -- Born Jan. 2 in Philadelphia to Aaron Albert and Mary Louise Tanner Mossell.

1916 -- Graduated from M Street High School in Washington, D.C., and entered the University of Pennsylvania.

1918 -- Completed her undergraduate program at Penn and was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in education with senior honors.

1919 -- 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.

1921 -- 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.

1921-23 -- Worked as assistant actuary at the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, N.C.

1923 -- Returned to Philadelphia where she married Raymond Pace Alexander, the brother of her good friend and sorority sister from undergraduate school, Virginia Alexander.

1924 -- Became the first African-American woman to enroll in Penn'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 -- 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.

1927-31 -- Became the first African-American woman to serve as assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia.

1936-40 -- Served her second term as assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia.

1943-47 -- Became the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.

1946-65 -- 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 -- As chair 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 her own 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 -- Was awarded her fifth degree at the University of Pennsylvania, an honorary doctor of laws degree. This was the first of seven such honors by colleges and universities around the country.

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 Nov. 1 at age 91 after having been recognized, in her last decade, as one of Philadelphia's leading citizens.

April 2007 response from Almanac, University of Pennsylvania



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