Sadie T.M. Alexander: Philly’s Great Hidden Figure
The first Black woman to practice law in the state, she’s finally getting her due.
It’s important to understand that I’m not a native Philadelphian. I was born and raised in a Midwestern city where Black people were supposed to stay in their place. As a Black girl full of ambition, who wanted more out of life than to stay in her place, I left.
I came East. New York City for work. Brooklyn to start a family. When our family of four outgrew Brooklyn, friends suggested Philadelphia. My brother lived here. Real estate was affordable. But we didn’t fall in love with Philly until we discovered Mount Airy, a multicultural Shangri-La that had me at hello. So we bought a house and moved. It was 2006.
Nothing is perfect, not even Mount Airy, but it gave my children something I never had: a vision of Black excellence and a truly integrated neighborhood.
One day, on one of our many Mount Airy walks, we passed a house that stopped me in my tracks. It was as if somebody had reached into my brain and built my perfect home, right on the corner of Westview and Sherman streets. The sprawling Tudor-style house stretched across its lot instead of reaching up into the sky like the three- and four-story homes around it. “That’s my dream house,” I squealed. I told my husband: If it ever went on sale, we had to buy it. Then I noticed the house’s blue and yellow historical sign. It read: “Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898 – 1989) The first Black woman to be admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania, she lived here in her later years. Active in the Urban League, she was appointed in 1946 to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.” In my mind, this was the universe trying to tell me I was meant to live in this house. Perhaps I was reading too deeply into things, but I’ve always had a touch of the dramatic.
Considering the historical marker, I figured Alexander must have name recognition in Mount Airy — but she didn’t. I asked for Sadie stories at work and on social media but got mostly crickets and blank stares. So I started researching on my own. The more I learned about this remarkable woman, the more impressed I became.
Sadie Alexander was a woman of firsts. She earned her PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921 and became the country’s first Black economist. She was the first Black woman to graduate from Penn Law School, in 1927. She was the first Black woman to pass the bar in Pennsylvania and practice law in the state. She was the first national president of the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta.
Since Alexander was the daughter of two prominent Black families in Philadelphia — the Tanners and the Mossells — much was expected of her, but her journey didn’t end once she hit those academic and professional milestones. Until she was felled by Alzheimer’s in her mid-80s, Alexander worked tirelessly to improve the lives of African-American and poor people. She was appointed to President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights and served on Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations for 16 years. She did this while maintaining a robust legal career and raising two daughters with her husband.
I grew dizzy reading about Alexander’s accomplishments and courage. Though she came from a family of Black elites, Alexander’s father abandoned his family when she was still a baby, leaving her mother to raise Sadie and her siblings alone. Although she had a soaring intellect that gained her admission to Penn for undergraduate and graduate degrees, she faced such virulent racism from her classmates and professors that it’s a wonder she made it through one degree program, much less four. And when she finally finished her PhD in economics and discovered that nobody in Philadelphia would hire her — she couldn’t even get a job as a high-school teacher — she went back to school for a law degree so she could help change the laws that were keeping people like her out of the workforce. Then, for the rest of her professional life, Alexander tasked herself with dismantling segregation in schools, the workplace and housing in Philadelphia.
By the time I completed my research, I was miffed. Sadie Alexander was like Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. all in one. Plus, she threw legendary dinner parties in her Mount Airy home, where guests would gather to listen to live music before feasting. Why don’t people know her name?
Nina Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University, has the same question. She has spent years trying to get more recognition for Alexander as a civil rights icon and as an economist. I asked Banks why Alexander lacks name recognition in Philadelphia. She said there was more than one reason but laid much of the blame on racism and sexism. “The organizational and activist work of African-American women has always been largely invisible because it’s performed by Black women,” Banks said.
Thankfully, not everyone in Philly draws a blank about Alexander, especially members of her old sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. “When you think of the perfect Delta, she’s the model,” says my friend LiRon Anderson-Bell, who pledged Delta while at Penn. She notes that the university has been active in keeping Alexander’s memory alive, housing an extensive archive of her papers, endowing a chair in her name at its law school, and hosting its Black Law Students Association’s annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference.
Another place Sadie’s legacy is memorialized is at the Penn Alexander School. I had no idea one of the city’s most coveted public elementary schools is named for her! Her picture is prominently displayed throughout the school, and according to principal Michael Farrell, her life story is woven through the school’s history and literacy curricula. Alexander’s contributions will never be forgotten if every Penn Alexander graduate recognizes her as a patron saint.
Now that I know Sadie’s story, too, I’m spreading the word. I feel comforted knowing this progressive Black woman lived in my adopted neighborhood. And I won’t just talk about her house anymore — though I will continue to check the real estate listings, just in case it ever goes on sale.
Lori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University. She is the author of the book Same Family, Different Colors (Beacon).
Published as “Heroes” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.