Sadie Alexander; Pioneered Opportunities for Blacks


Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first American black woman to get a Ph.D. in economics and to become a lawyer in Pennsylvania, has died in her Philadelphia retirement community. She was 91.

Mrs. Alexander died Wednesday in Cathedral Village of pneumonia. She had been hospitalized there with Alzheimer’s disease since 1983.

A civil rights leader for more than half a century, Mrs. Alexander was appointed by President Harry S. Truman to his Committee on Civil Rights in 1948, and by former President Jimmy Carter as chairman of his White House Conference on Aging in 1981.

She was active nationally in the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action and the National Urban League.

Born Jan. 2, 1898, to a distinguished black family in Philadelphia, Mrs. Alexander was the nation’s second woman to earn a doctorate, following the first by a single day. She became the first black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a generation after her father, Aaron Mossell, was the first black man to do so.


During her college career, Mrs. Alexander founded Penn’s chapter of the Howard University-based black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and became its first national president.

“I was embarrassed and thrilled at the same time,” she once said of her ceremonial march to receive her historic doctorate. “Coming up the stairs to the platform I heard a voice say, ‘Here she comes.’ It was the president of Bryn Mawr. At that time Bryn Mawr didn’t admit black students.”

Mrs. Alexander married Harvard law graduate Raymond Pace Alexander and practiced law with him until he became a judge, initiating legal battles that opened up restaurants, hotels and movie theaters to blacks in Philadelphia. During the 1940s she served as assistant city solicitor.

She and her husband, who died in 1974, helped found the National Bar Assn., an organization of black lawyers. In 1986, the Philadelphia Bar Assn. named its public service center in the couple’s honor.

Mrs. Alexander was the granddaughter of Bishop Benjamin Tucker of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in Philadelphia. She was a niece of Henry Tanner, the 19th-Century artist.

She is survived by two daughters, Rae Alexander Minter of New York and Mary A. Brown of Washington, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.