Sweet Sadie…Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander That Is

In BGLO, Black History, Delta Sigma Theta, Divine Nine, PhD, Women's History on March 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm

“Don’t let anything stop you. There will be times when you’ll be disappointed, but you can’t stop. Make yourself the best that you can make out of what you are. The very best.”

Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander in Doctoral Regalia, 1921

– Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, 1918 B.S. in Ed.; 1919 A.M.; 1921 Ph.D. in Economics; 1927, LL.B.; 1974, Hon. LL.D.

Do you see the credentials that follow that name? Mind boggling isn’t it. Well add to them Alexander’s place as the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the United States, the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, first black woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated (ΔΣΘ) as well as wife to civil rights attorney and man of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated (ΑΦΑ),  Raymond Pace Alexander and mother to Mary Elizabeth Alexander Brown (born 1934) and Rae Pace Alexander Minter (born 1937).

I think I've died and gone to (s)hero heaven.

The Tanner Family, 1890

Born Sarah Tanner Mossell in Philadelphia in 1898, her maternal grandfather was African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner who, was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree from Wilberforce College in 1878 and served as editor of The Christian Recorder (1868-84) and the AME Church Review (1884-88). Her mother Mary Louise Tanner Mossell’s siblings included painter Henry O. Tanner and physician Hallie Tanner Dillon Johnson, founder of the Tuskegee Institute Nurses’ School. Alexander’s father Aaron Albert Mossell II was the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and his brother Nathan Tanner Mossell was the first black medical graduate from University of Pennsylvania.

Can you say pedigree?

Infant Sadie Alexander with older sister Elizabeth (r), c. 1900

When she was just one year old, her father deserted the family, leaving her mother to care for her as well as her older sister Elizabeth and brother Aaron.  Alexander would later recall, “Now my father deserted my mother, and I tell you this because it is often thought that without a man in the house you can’t do anything, but my mother did it all. And I often thought that perhaps it was God’s will that he got out. So there wasn’t any arguing.” Alexander did not however, learn of her father’s desertion until she was an eighth-grader. Despite describing her mother as “a brilliant woman,” Alexander keenly noted that even so, “she never got over my father’s leaving her.” Her mother would suffer with bouts of depression throughout her childhood but was aided by her sister Sadie Moore, who was married to Howard University Dean Lewis Baxter Moore.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, 1921

Educated at the M Street School (also known as Washington’s famous Dunbar High School), Alexander received a scholarship from Howard University; but her mother demanded that she attend the University of Pennsylvania. Alexander was furious but obedient. She began her academic career at Penn in the fall of 1915. There, she endured racism and sexism from all quarters during her collegiate career; but found strength in the support of her family and faith in God. She later recalled, “I concluded [while still an undergraduate student] that I could not single-handedly make any changes in the position of women at Penn or of the people of my race and that it was best for me to secure an outstanding record and a solid education so that when I entered public life I would have the background to assume responsibility and leadership.” And so she began each day with the prayer:

“God, give me the strength to do my assignments the very best I have the ability. And Dear Lord, teach me to walk alone and not be lonely, knowing Thou art at my side.”

Gamma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, 1921

Christian faith was also the centerpiece of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a fledgling women’s organization which had been founded by twenty-two women on the campus of Howard in 1913. “At this high point of the Progressive Era,” wrote Paula Giddings in the 1988 publication In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Black Sorority Movement, “Howard, Afro-American and women were on the move–and so were the twenty-two coeds who saw themselves an integral part of the developments swirling around them” (47). The same year of its founding, Alexander was approached by the Sorority’s founders to help establish a chapter on Penn’s campus. When the Gamma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta was founded five years later in 1918, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was among its five founding members. Early on in the history of black Greek-lettered organizations (BGLO) “there was a greater need for a heaven against discrimination” on white college campuses (18). With a sense of racial obligation, BGLOs combated racism and sexism by offering support and camaraderie among blacks who faced not only social segregation but also academic ostracism.


Raymond Pace and Sade Tanner Mossell Alexander

She graduated in 1918 with senior honors but was denied election to Phi Beta Kappa. The following year she earned a master of arts degree in economics at Penn and was awarded the Francis Sergeant Pepper Fellowship in economics, which enabled her to study for her doctorate. In 1921, Alexander earned her Ph.D. in economics for her dissertation was “The Standard of Living Among One Hundred Negro Migrant Families in Philadelphia.” The same year, Alexander was elected the first national president of the Grand Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta during which time she led the establishment of the sorority’s structure and procedures.

In 1923, she married Harvard Law School graduate Raymond Alexander Pace, the brother of her friend and sorority sister Virgina Alexander.  The following year, she enrolled in Penn’s Law School where she became the first black woman to serve as editor of the Law Review. When Alexander graduated in 1927, she began a distinguished legal career as the first black woman to graduate from Penn’s Law School as well as the first black woman to pass the Pennsylvania Bar and practice law in the state. Working alongside her husband, the Alexanders were a formidable duo and one of the earliest husband and wife legal teams in the United States.

Did I hear someone say forerunners to Barak and Michelle Obama?

There is in fact, so much more to share. And I will–another day! But in the meantime, here’s to you “sweet” Sadie…


Lia B. Epperson. “Knocking Down Doors: The Trailblazing Life of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Pennsylvania’s First Black Woman Lawyer.” Unpublished paper. 1998.

Paula Giddings. In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Black Sorority Movement. New York: Morrow, 1988.

“Quotations from Women at Penn.” University Archives and Records Center University of Pennsylvania.

“Chapter History.” Gamma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.

*All Photos Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania’s University Archives Digital Image Collection.


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