Born two decades before American women won the right to vote, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander overcame obstacles as a female and also as an African American in the elite profession of law. In 1927 she became the first black woman to gain admission to the Pennsylvania Bar, beginning a long career advocating for civil and human rights.
Sarah Tanner Mossell Alexander was born into a distinguished family on January 2, 1898 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her grandfather was Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835-1923), editor of the Christian Recorder and the AME Church Review. Her uncle was surgeon Dr. Nathan F. Mossell (1856-1946), founder of the Frederick Douglass Hospital (now Mercy-Douglass Hospital), and her aunt, Dr. Hallie Tanner Johnson (1864-1901), founded Tuskegee Institute’s Nurses’ School & Hospital. Other uncles were the painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) and Lewis Baxter Moore (1866-1928), Dean of Howard University.
Alexander’s father was Aaron Mossell (1863-1951), an attorney who deserted his wife Mary and two daughters a year after Sadie’s birth. Suffering from depression, Mary Mossell often traveled to Washington, D.C., where relatives cared for the girls.
Although she earned a scholarship to Howard University, Sadie Alexander was directed by her mother to attend the University of Pennsylvania instead, entering in the fall of 1915. There she struggled with discrimination from students and professors. In 1918 she graduated with honors with a B.S. degree in education but at the time was denied election into Phi Beta Kappa.
She continued her studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning an M.A. and then a Ph.D. in economics, becoming the first black woman in the U.S. to earn the degree. Unable to find work as an African American woman in Pennsylvania, she was hired by the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1921 and stayed there until 1923 when she returned to Philadelphia to marry her college sweetheart, Raymond Pace Alexander (1897-1974), an attorney. They had two