A Philadelphia City councilwoman wants to dedicate a statue to honor trailblazing African-American lawyer and civil rights advocate Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.
But Alexander’s surviving family isn’t sold on the idea.
One of her two children, Rae Alexander-Minter, questioned the roll-out of the proposal during a recent telephone interview, saying that no one from the city had reached out to her about it.
“I’m pleased, but I need to know more and I need to meet with those people. … It has not been done well, in terms of logistics,” said Alexander-Minter, who is 80 and lives in the Bronx.
“I can’t go forward until they reach out to me,” she said. “I cannot make a statement in favor of this without having more information.”
Mary Brown Cannaday, Alexander’s other daughter, declined to comment when reached by email.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker proposed a non-binding resolution in June to erect a statue for Alexander because her legacy was “worthy of as much recognition as we can give,” she said in an email.
“In the very near future I will meet with Alexander family members to see how they would want us to proceed.”
Parker did not respond to additional questions about her proposal.
If the City Council approves Parker’s resolution, the statue of Alexander would be only the second public piece of art — excluding murals — of a historical African-American woman to be displayed in the city.
Alexander, who overcame racism and discrimination throughout her life, left her mark on the city and nation.
For Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University of Pennsylvania Archives, Alexander stood alone as the city’s most influential Black woman of the 20th century.
“Among African-American women in Philadelphia, she is without question the leading inspirational role model. … She’s the real thing,” said Lloyd, who oversees a vast collection of documents from both Alexander and her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, a Harvard Law School graduate and prominent lawyer in his own right.
A life of firsts
Born in 1898, Alexander was the youngest daughter of Aaron Albert Mossell II, the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Mary Louisa Tanner. Aaron Mossell abandoned his family when Alexander was only an infant, and her mother and various family members raised her.
She earned a degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1918 and graduated with honors. She became the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. while she continued her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the age of 23, Alexander became the first African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. She later went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she served on the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Law Review as an assistant editor. Lloyd believed that no woman had served on the review board before her.
“She competed for a spot, she was discriminated against, and she got a spot anyway,” Lloyd said.
When Alexander graduated from the law school, she was the first African-American woman to do so. And in 1927, Alexander became the first African-American woman to gain admission to the Pennsylvania Bar.
She was appointed the first Black assistant city solicitor in 1928, and served from 1928 to 1930, and from 1934 to 1938. She practiced law with her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, until he was named a Court of Common Pleas judge in 1959, and then practiced independently until she retired in 1982.
Throughout her life, Alexander served on various boards, committees and national organizations.
President Harry S Truman appointed Alexander to his Committee on Civil Rights in 1946, where she helped produce a 178-page report called “To Secure These Rights: The President’s Committee on Civil Rights.” The report recommended establishing permanent civil rights commissions, abolishing poll taxes, enacting laws to prohibit lynching, taking steps to address police brutality and other measures. Truman later sent a special message to Congress, asking it to implement the recommendations in the report.
Alexander co-founded the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations in 1951, helping make Philadelphia the first city in the U.S. to have such an agency. She served on the commission from 1952 to 1968.
Lloyd ranked her participation in the establishment of the commission as among her most significant and lasting accomplishments in the city.
“This was really, if I might use a phrase, an inbreaking of a new order,” Lloyd said. “It was a harbinger of what was going to come with the civil rights movement and she was right there; she was one of the founders.”
President Jimmy Carter appointed her as chairwoman of the White House Conference on Aging in 1979.
She died in 1989.
Among those who knew Alexander was Nolan N. Atkinson Jr., the city’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Atkinson worked in Alexander’s fledgling law firm in the mid-1970s where he “saw her practicing law every day,” he said. He added that Alexander was not only a family friend, but she and her husband ushered him into him into his law career.
“She was a kind, very precise lawyer and she was sort of a lawyer all the time — both professionally and when I saw her walking in the halls,” said Atkinson, 75.
Lloyd said Alexander was “deadly earnest, deadly serious in everything she did. She was very hard-working and very results oriented.”
At the same time, she had a sense of humility and cared about the well-being of others, said Thelma Daley and Constance Clayton, both of whom knew Alexander as a mentor and colleague.
“You never saw her bragging,” said Daley, a former national president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and National Director for Women in the NAACP. “But what came out were her actions and her voice. She was the essence of resistance and the essence of persistence and the essence of excellence.”
“She was fearless, outspoken,” added Clayton, a former Philadelphia schools superintendent.
Daley noted Alexander also was always well dressed — from her shoes to her hair.
City solicitor Marcel Pratt said Alexander’s story resonates with lawyers in the city, especially lawyers of color.
“You can’t go through law school in Philadelphia without hearing her name and hearing about what she accomplished,” he said. “She’s just one of those figures who I think will be elevated forever among our community because of everything that she’s done.”
Pratt noted a plaque currently hangs in the city’s Law Department honoring Alexander.
“The fact that she worked here is a tremendous source of pride to have someone with that kind of a legacy and that kind of a history,” he said.
Alexander’s imprint pops up elsewhere in the city, too. A state historical blue marker at 700 Westview Street in North Philadelphia, dedicated in 1993, identifies where Alexander lived in her later years. And a district elementary school in West Philadelphia bears her name.
A rare honor
A public statue to honor a prominent Black woman “would be something that’s long overdue,” said Margot Berg, the city’s public art director in the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.
Public art pieces dedicated to women — not including allegorical or fictional women, or murals — account for six of the approximately 1,564 pieces of public art in Philadelphia, according to the Association for Public Art.
There is only one piece of public art dedicated to an African-American woman: Oney Judge, the former slave who escaped from George Washington’s House. While Judge’s story is told through signage and images at the President’s House at the Independence National Historical Park, there is no statue.
Berg said her office would welcome any effort to dedicate a statue to Alexander.
“There are many women, who over the course of this country’s development since the 1770s, who’ve had a major impact in our world, our culture and our city,” Berg said. “So I think it would be a fantastic thing to pursue.”
Mayor Jim Kenney lent his support to the proposal, too, said Kenney spokeswoman Sarah Reyes in an email.
“Currently, women are woefully under-represented in monuments in Philadelphia, and Mayor Kenney supports the addition of monuments honoring trailblazing women such as Sadie Alexander,” Reyes said.
But completing a city public works project of that scale would be a long and winding road, Berg said.
Any effort to erect a statue for Alexander would take years, requiring fundraising, and selecting a location, artist, design, among other considerations. The recently unveiled Octavius V. Catto statue outside City Hall took approximately 15 years from start to finish.