Almost 100 years ago, in 1921, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander became the first African American to earn a doctorate in economics in the United States, her degree awarded by the University of Pennsylvania.
When racial discrimination kept her locked out of a career as an economist, Alexander enrolled at Penn’s law school and became the first black woman to graduate, in 1927.
Then, along with her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, she filed lawsuits challenging segregation in public schools in Berwyn and racial discrimination in theaters and restaurants in Philadelphia. Eventually, her work on President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights led to desegregation of the federal workforce and armed forces in 1948.
Now, 30 years after her death, Alexander’s name is finding relevance again with a new generation of young, black, female economists who have found inspiration in her story.
Last fall, the Sadie Collective was formed to encourage and support black women as they pursue doctorates and careers in economics and related public policy fields. They may not face the same racism and discrimination that Alexander encountered at Penn — she wasn’t allowed to eat in the dining hall, and the law school dean refused to speak to her — but a field like economics can still be a lonely pursuit for them.
Only seven out of 1,150 economics doctoral degrees awarded in 2016-17 in the United States went to black women, according to George-Ann Ryan, the collective’s chief financial officer and a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“For many of us," she said, "we are the only [black women economics students] in our institutions.”
When the collective, created by a University of Maryland, Baltimore County senior and a recent Howard University graduate, began organizing for its inaugural conference last year, the 100-person event sold out in two weeks. Next year they’re hoping to accommodate 200 to 300 black women in economics and related fields. Those who attended the February event came from across the country, including from places as far away as Canada, California, Wyoming and Colorado. In April, the group launched its website.
When Ryan, 23, was working at a nonprofit after getting a bachelor’s degree in economics at Pace University, she noticed that economic theories didn’t account for racial bias, stigma, and other factors that affect the outcomes of public policies. Ryan, now pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University, said Alexander’s work in economics examined those issues.
“She actually was a champion for policies like federal job guarantees and promoting economic mobility for black people,” Ryan said.
Ryan, a native of Antigua, said she was more fortunate than many members of the collective in that she had two black women as role models in her field — her high school economics teacher and an undergraduate professor.
She said the collective hopes to create a pipeline of young women who will help one another get the information and guidance they need to pursue economics. After Columbia, Ryan said, she wants to return to Antigua to get her doctorate and help support economic development in her home country.
“We want to make sure," she said, "by keeping Sadie’s legacy alive, through her we can allow more black women to challenge the same systems that keep them out of these circles.”
For Kayla Jones, 22, the collective’s chief engagement officer, Alexander’s efforts inspire her own. She is enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Research Scholar Initiative at Harvard University, focusing on economics and mathematics.
“When I was first attracted to economics, I felt at a loss. I didn’t know what the field was like,” she said. "And for someone like her in the 1920s to accomplish her doctorate was an incredible feat.”
Nina Banks, an economics professor at Bucknell University who has been researching Alexander for over a decade, started to see a surge in interest for the crusader after a talk she gave at John Jay College in fall 2015 was posted on YouTube. She subsequently heard from a number of publications, including the Financial Times, which the following year interviewed her for a podcast on Alexander.
“Sadie Alexander continued to offer economic analysis long after she was denied the opportunity of becoming an economist,” Banks wrote in an email.
Now, Banks is working on two books — a biography of Alexander and an edited compilation of her speeches and writings — to be published in 2021, the 100th anniversary of her doctorate.
In Philadelphia, Alexander’s legacy continues to be honored in a number of ways. The award-winning Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander School, informally known as Penn Alexander, is named for her. Penn’s Black Law Students Association hosts an annual conference recognizing her as a pioneer.
And on Saturday, the Philadelphia Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority will host its annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Awards Brunch. In another first, Alexander was the sorority’s first national president.
Monica J. Taylor, president of the Philadelphia chapter and assistant superintendent of the Hatboro-Horsham School District, said Alexander, a “visionary,” had a “clear sense of identity and purpose."
“Her courageous journey instills in all of us an obligation to pursue a life full of purpose that is larger than ourselves," Taylor said, “and a feeling of empowerment to make a positive difference in this world.”
Alexander was born into two accomplished families. On her mother’s side, her uncle was the noted artist Henry Ossawa Tanner; her maternal grandfather, Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner of the A.M.E. Church. Her father, Aaron Albert Mossell II, was the first black person to graduate from Penn’s law school, in 1888, and her uncle Nathan Francis Mossell was the first black graduate of Penn’s School of Medicine in 1882. He helped to found Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital.
Her undergraduate tuition at Penn was paid for by her grandfather the bishop, and her husband supported her when she attended law school.
Most people don’t have that kind of assistance. But hopefully, said Ryan, this network of women can give that to one another.