At last February’s 19th Black Law Student Association dinner at the University of Pennsylvania, it was announced that the endowment of the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Chair in Civil Rights at the Law School at the University of Pennsylvania was complete. This highly anticipated news came on the heels of a 15-year struggle to raise enough funds to carry out the vision of these two prominent pioneers of the early civil rights movement. Here’s how it all began…
In 1917, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Raymond Pace Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell, and Virginia Alexander sat huddled together under the library steps, away from the other students who spent their afternoons at the local lunch counter or restaurant. Though their admission to the university had broken significant barriers, racism and segregation continued to run deep, and it was not unusual to be denied service and verbally abused because of their color. In the face of such discrimination, the three students turned to one another, sharing lunch from a box stocked with food from Sadie Tanner Mossell’s home and planting the seeds for a future dedicated to making this lack of accommodation a thing of the past.
Raymond Pace Alexander in his law office in an undated photo taken between 1935 and 1940. (inset) Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander posed for this formal portrait in June 1921 after receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photos University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania
Visionaries and Architects
Though Sadie Tanner Mossell and Raymond Pace Alexander (who later married) were born and raised in a society defined by race, class, and gender, each rose above these conditions to achieve remarkable feats. Mrs. Alexander’s courage and determination propelled her to become the first African American woman to enroll in and graduate from the Law School at the University of Pennsylvania, in the interim serving as associate editor of the Law Review. Later, she became the first African American woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. In 1946, President Harry Truman appointed her to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, and she later served as the first commissioner of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Rights. Raymond Pace Alexander, the son of a former slave, graduated from Harvard Law School and was later appointed the first African American judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. It was in this role that he helped establish Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Together, through a tireless commitment to equal rights, the Alexanders formed a lucrative law practice that served their community and, in doing so, became pioneers of the law and social justice in the early years of the civil rights movement. They successfully litigated a number of discrimination cases and played a critical role in establishing Pennsylvania’s 1935 Equal Rights Law, drafting legislation that rendered it illegal to deny African Americans access to public schools, restaurants, and hotels.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School holds more than just a $1.1 million endowment. The school was also granted the following Alexander memorabilia.
Raymond Pace Alexander
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
- Two fine art paintings, one of Judge Alexander and another of Mrs. Alexander. They were presented at this year’s BLSA dinner by Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter with the intention of being hung in the law school’s corridors.
- A collection of the Alexanders’ papers. The papers include Mrs. Alexander’s personal notes on her experiences serving on President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights.
“The thing I remember the most was that they worked so hard,” recalls Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, the younger of the Alexanders’ two daughters. “They were constantly, constantly working.” Even when spending time with family, they were far from ordi-nary parents. Sunday dinners often involved distinguished company, and Dr. Alexander-Minter recalls scores of luminaries and important African Americans invited to dinner, including Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Though she and her sister, Mary Elizabeth, were always welcomed into in-depth discussions of law and politics, if their table manners weren’t up to snuff, they were removed from the main table. Dr. Alexander-Minter remembers an occasion when Bethune, a member of President Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, dined at their home. Mrs. Alexander was so appalled by her young daughter’s table manners that she relegated her to the breakfast room. “I want you to know that I got my table manners together within 24 hours!” Dr. Alexander-Minter recalls fondly.
“The Alexanders were the kind of family who knew everybody in the legal industry,” adds Nolan N. Atkinson, Jr., partner at Duane Morris LLP, who worked in the late 1970s with Mrs. Alexander when she was with the minority-owned law firm that bore his name, Atkinson Myers Archie & Wallace. He remembers both Alexanders as extremely sensitive to right versus wrong, describing Mrs. Alexander as the more tenacious of the two and Judge Alexander as the more political persona. “If Judge Alexander had been born 25 years later, there’s no question he would’ve been in the U.S. Senate. He was a great speaker. He was the kind of person that everyone knew and everyone sort of loved.” Atkinson recalls a day when Judge Alexander took him to Philadelphia’s historic Bellevue-Stratford Hotel for lunch. “We walked from City Hall to the Bellevue, which was about a 10-minute walk, but it took him 45 because he knew everyone.”
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way?
Aaron Albert Mossell, Dr. Alexander’s father and the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School (1888), is shown standing to the right of his mother (seated) in this 1880 family portrait. Her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell (seated to the right) was the first African American to graduate from the University’s medical school in 1882.
The maternal side of Dr. Alexander’s family is represented in this 1890 portrait. Featured are her grandfather Benjamin Tucker Tanner (seated), African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church bishop; an uncle, famous painter Henry Osawa Tanner (standing to the left of his father); and her mother, Mary Tanner Mossell (seated far right).
Deeply respected and loved by many, the Alexanders created an indelible footprint. Indeed, the impact of their years of legal and social service would not end with their lives. Upon her death in 1989, 15 years after Judge Alexander’s passing, Mrs. Alexander bequeathed to the Law School at the University of Pennsylvania $100,000 to establish and perpetuate the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Chair in Civil Rights, the first professorship at the Penn Law School named for African Americans.
“Her vision was to establish the chair and a course of study in civil rights that would allow and provide students with an understanding of the struggle to bring about equality and equity for those most underrepresented in our society,” explains Dr. Alexander-Minter. “My parents were really the architects of the early civil rights movement. I was thrilled that there would be a mechanism to continue their legacy.” And so it was with great pleasure that she spearheaded the effort to carry out her parents’ vision.
It was not an easy undertaking. This initial endowment was not nearly enough to fund a professorship in their honor and, despite the chair’s inspirational name, history, and purpose, locating extra financing to support their vision proved formidable.
That process began 15 years ago, in 1992, as a combined student/alumni effort. The Black Law Student Association (BLSA) at the University of Pennsylvania held an annual conference in honor of Mrs. Alexander. “The idea was to take the proceeds from the Annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference and over a period of time, build on that to try to get the chair endowed,” Atkinson explains. “Though the Black Law Students Association and other groups students would raise substantial sums, $30,000 to $40,000, that still left significant amounts to be raised to endow a chair. When students began the effort, the cost of an endowed chair was about $1.5 million. Today, it is even more.”
“The students were extraordinary, but chairs are very, very expensive,” explains Dr. Alexander-Minter, noting two flaws that ultimately left the funding in flux. “First, my parents had been dead for so many years. Their friends, who were wealthy and influential, had died as well. Time was against us. We [also] discovered that giving monies to fund a chair in law is particularly hard, unlike in medicine. People reward their doctors for saving their lives, but they don’t reward their lawyers for getting them out of jail.” And so, despite ongoing efforts, the professorship remained unfunded for nearly 15 years.
Now or Never
Left to Right: Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, keynote speaker for the event; Rae Alexander-Minter; Dwight Evans, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, House of Representatives, General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Mary Brown Cannady; Michael Fitts (Univ. of Pennsylvania Law School Dean); and Sheldon Bonovitz.
Then came proof of the Alexanders’ powerful impact. A decade after Mrs. Alexander’s will was read, Atkinson came across some materials about the endowment being one of the law school’s diversity program goals. “It seemed to me that this was something that should’ve been done that had not been done. It’s like honoring George and Martha Washington. That’s how I felt about it,” he recalls. “I went to see a couple of people and I quickly realized that the people who knew the Alexanders were either retiring or dying off and that if this chair wasn’t getting funded quickly, it would never get funded.”
Having known both Alexanders and being a Penn Law graduate himself, Atkinson became particularly interested in ramping up the campaign to get it off the ground. He sought the help of Michael A. Fitts, dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, who had been a longtime supporter of the students’ efforts, attending all of the Sadie Alexander Conferences and doing everything in his power to solicit alumni for funds. Together, they met with Sheldon Bonovitz, the chairman and CEO of Duane Morris, to explain the need for donors. Atkinson had further success with Representative Dwight Evans, the Democratic leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. The result: Duane Morris contributed $100,000 and Representative Evans agreed to an appropriation of $1 million through the Department of Education. And so it came to be that the revived campaign was successful. It was later announced at the 19th BLSA dinner, held on February 17, 2007, that through this joint effort between the students and alumni of Penn Law, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the diversity committee at Duane Morris, there was enough funding to move forward to create a professorship devoted to the study of civil rights and race relations in the names of Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.
The Future of the Chair
Those involved in its funding hope the chair will extend the reach of the Alexanders through its impact on future law students and society. “[The Alexanders] represented many people in criminal and civil trials,” explains Atkinson. “So I think that such a professorship will stress and will help and will be available to bring the best and brightest minds from throughout the country to Penn to have a full and complete understanding of what it means to be a true advocate for the civil rights for all people in this country.”
The person who will step into this distinguished position is yet to be determined. When the promised funds are transferred in their entirety (at press time, about half the funds were in), the Faculty will look internally and externally for faculty who meet the vision of the Alexanders. “It’s ultimately a faculty and provostial decision,” explains Fitts, who expects the candidate to be a premier civil rights figure.
Fitts anticipates that the chair will further the life and vision of the Alexanders in two fundamental ways, not only through teaching but also through active national involvement in civil rights issues. The committee will look for someone who can successfully carry out the mission and goals of the chair, he says, but also someone who is fit to carry the Alexander name.
“Sadie was not only one of our most distinguished graduates but also one of the most important civil rights leaders of her time,” he explains. “By having the name of the chair, you’re honoring her—and their—legacy.” DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based in northern New Jersey.
From the September/October 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®