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An oral biography of the incomparable Sadie Alexander

Charles Barkley's
Black History Month All Stars

All Star #2: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander

I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:

“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”

At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.

I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.

So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.


Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander


Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander


(January 2, 1898 - November 1, 1989)

The first black female lawyer in Pennsylvania, Sadie Alexander was Philly’s assistant city solicitor at a time—the 1930s—when few women of any race held city titles. Later, she helped author President Harry Truman’s report on civil rights. Even as a young woman, Alexander knew that education was the key to her success. She was the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law, and the first in the nation to get a Ph.D. in economics (and only the second black female Ph.D. recipient in the country)—two of her five eventual degrees.

“I never looked for anybody to hold the door open for me,” Alexander said. “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.”


  • University of Pennsylvania, B.S. 1918
  • University of Pennsylvania, A.M. 1919
  • University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D 1921
  • University of Pennsylvania, LL.B 1927
  • University of Pennsylvania, Hon. LL.D 1974



  • Assistant City Solicitor, Philadelphia 1928-1930, 1934-1938
  • Appointed to Truman’s Committee of Human Rights in 1947, coauthoring “To Secure these Rights”
  • National Urban League’s “Woman of the Year”
  • Philadelphia Human Relations Commissioner 1952-1968
  • School District and Penn open elementary school named for Alexander, 2001



While earning an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, Alexander was described as: “…an active worker for civil rights, she has been a steady and forceful advocate on the national, state, and municipal scene, reminding people everywhere that freedoms are won not only by idealism but by persistence and will over a long time…”

Home page image: Women of Germantown © 2001 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / David McShane. Photo by Katie Hargrave/MinnPost.

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