Sadie Alexander, Civil Rights Champion (1898 – 1989)

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I Love Ancestry

Born Sarah Tanner Mossell, this inspiring woman, Sadie Alexander achieved a lot of firsts in her life.

Sadie Alexander (Jan. 2, 1898 – Nov. 1, 1989) A life-long champion of civil rights and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race or gender, was a leader in the legal, political and civic arenas of her day. She was the first Black American woman to receive a Ph.D. (1921) in the United States, the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School (1919).

 “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.” -Sadie Alexander

In 1927, Sadie Alexander was the first Black American woman graduate to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. To continue, she was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. She practiced as an attorney from 1927 to 1982 and was the first Black American woman appointed as Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia. She and her husband were both active in civil rights, and in 1952 she was appointed to the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Philadelphia, serving through 1968.


Sadie Alexander

Members at 1921 Delta Sigma Theta’s national Convention, hosted by Gamma Chapter at the University of Pennsylvania. Shown left to right: front, Virginia Margaret Alexander, Julia Mae Polk, Sadie Tanner Mossell; row 2, Anna R. Johnson, Nellie Rathbone Bright, Pauline Alice Young.



Sarah Tanner Mossell was born in Philadelphia. Mossell’s father was the first Black American to graduate from University of Pennsylvania Law School, and his brother, Nathan Francis Mossell (1856–1946), was the first Black American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania medical school. During her high school years, Mossell lived in Washington, DC with her uncle, Lewis Baxter Moore. Mossell returned to Philadelphia to study at the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1918. She pursued graduate work in economics, also at the University of Pennsylvania, earning her master’s in 1919.

After passing the bar, she joined her husband, Raymond Alexander’s law practice, specializing in estate and family law. They both were active in civil rights law as well. Raymond Alexander was elected to the City Council. Mossell Alexander worked in her husband’s law firm from 1927 until 1959, when he was appointed to the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia.

Sadie Alexander died on November 1, 1989 and was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery. She was awarded in 1974 an honorary doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania, her first of seven such honors. An elementary school in West Philadelphia, the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School (“Penn Alexander”), is named after her. The Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania is named in her honor.

SOURCE: Based on materials from University of Pennsylvania (Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives) and


Published by I Love Ancestry

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