“I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down; because I knocked all of them down. Don’t let anything stop you.”
The quote from Sadie T.M. Alexander depicts her life to the tee: The first African American to earn a PhD in economics, the second Black woman to earn a doctoral degree, and the first African American woman to earn a law degree from University of Pennsylvania and be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, Alexander broke down barrier after barrier. Leveraging her expertise in economics and law, she devoted her life to fighting for the economic independence of Black women.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1898, Sadie Tanner Mossell was the daughter of Mary Tanner Mossell and Aaron Mossell, Jr.—the first Black man to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. That year, there were only 252 Black female college graduates in the United States, with the majority of those graduates going on to be educators. When she started college, at her father’s alma mater, Mossell too studied education, graduating within three years with a bachelor’s of science and then immediately diving into a PhD in economics at UPenn’s graduate school.
“Not one woman spoke to me in class or when I passed one or more than one woman on the walks to College hall or the Library. Can you imagine looking for classrooms and asking persons the way, only to find the same unresponsive person you asked for directions seated in the classroom, which you entered late because you could not find your way? Let us imagine you came from outer space and entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. You spoke perfect English, but no one spoke to you. Such circumstances made a student either a dropout or a survivor so strong that she could not be overcome, regardless of the indignities.” —Sadie T.M. Alexander
Not only did Alexander experience racism and sexism throughout her time at UPenn, but when she received her doctorate in 1921, the first African American to earn a PhD in economics and the second Black woman to earn a doctoral degree in the United States was unable to secure a job in the field. “I couldn’t get work anywhere,” she said. “In fact, the situation was such in Philadelphia that I could not even have taught high school after I had gotten all this training because they didn’t employ any colored teachers.”
She worked for a while as an actuary at the Black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, and married Raymond Alexander, a recent graduate from Harvard Law School. Hoping to address racism directly, she too earned a degree in law, becoming in 1927 both the first Black woman to earn a law degree from UPenn and the first to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. “Our interest in better race relations had naturally come as a result of our experiences and our desire to see that this doesn’t continue to happen,” Mossell Alexander said.
As a lawyer, Mossell Alexander drew upon her economics background, notes Nina Banks argues in her essay “Black Women and Racial Advancement: The Economics of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.” Mossell Alexander’s “main objective was to open up opportunity structures for blacks. Working as an economist or as a lawyer—her second career—was a means to achieving this end, rather than the primary goal.”
Mossell Alexander was appointed to President Truman’s Committee on Human Rights in 1946; to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy; and a member of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union. Additionally, she was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and its legal adviser for 35 years, and served as the secretary of the National Urban League for 25 years.
Alexander addressed intersectionality long before another attorney, Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the term in the late 1980s. “Alexander’s speech[es],” wrote Banks, “illuminated the struggles of black workers in ways that incorporated the simultaneity of race, gender, and class oppressions.” Both her speech, “The Economic Status of Negro Women, An Index to the Negro’s Economic Status,” and her article, “Negro Woman in our Economic Life,” stressed this message. Women, she wrote, had to “place themselves again among the producers of the world.”
In her 1930s speech “The Emancipation of Women,” Mossell Alexander argued that if all women were to gain economic independence, it would allow for more time to associate with other women, particularly women of color. An increase in conversations, particularly about racial barriers women of color faced, would lead to a breaking of those barriers. To Alexander, economic and political freedom were inseparable.
“As the first African American woman to become professionally trained as a social scientist at the doctorate level,” wrote Banks, “Alexander helped to usher in a new generation of African American women who would structure their arguments around meticulous research findings in addition to the use of moral persuasion and logic.” Despite her significant and groundbreaking contributions, Dr. Sadie T.M Alexander is little recognized today. A few years before her death from pneumonia in 1989, Mossell Alexander’s family donated her papers to UPenn’s archives. And today, The Sadie Collective, a non-profit public benefit organization, fights to bring more women into economics and its related fields by championing Dr. Alexander’s name.
Banks, Nina. “Black Women and Racial Advancement: The Economics of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.” The Review of Black Political Economy, vol. 33, no. 1, June 2005, pp. 9–24, doi:10.1007/s12114-005-1028-4.
Malveaux, Julianne. “Missed Opportunity: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and the Economics Profession.” The American Economic Review, vol. 81, no. 2, 1991, pp. 307–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2006875.