Most of what we know about African and African American history revolves around the recent or the popular. This means that many of the great people who have blazed trails for our community and the entire human race often go unknown and unnoticed. One such person is Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.
Alexander was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1898, and is on record as being the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the United States in economics. She may have even been the first African American woman to have earned both a Ph.D. and a law degree.
She earned her bachelor’s in education in 1918, master’s in economics in 1919, and her Ph.D. in economics in 1921, all from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1927, Alexander became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar.
From 1919 to 1923, Alexander served as the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. From 1928 to 1930 and from 1934 to 1938, she served as assistant city solicitor for the city of Philadelphia. In 1947, she was appointed to President Harry Truman’s Committee on Human Rights and from 1952 to 1968 served on the Commission on Human Relations of the city of Philadelphia. Alexander retired in 1982 and died Nov. 1, 1989. An elementary school, the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, is named in her honor.
A lifelong champion of civil rights and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race or gender, Alexander was a leader in the legal, political and civic arenas of her day. She was also a wife and mother and an unlikely comic book hero.
Her doctorate dissertation was titled “The Standard of Living Among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia.” She also was elected the first president of the Grand Chapter, the national organization of the African American sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
In 1947, President Harry S. Truman appointed her serve on the President’s Committee on Civil Rights The report produced from that committee, “To Secure These Rights,” served as the foundation of the Civl Rights Movement in America and was the basis for future civil rights policy decisions and legislation.
In her latter years, she was appointed chairperson of the White House Conference on Aging by President Jimmy Carter.