She is one of the most notable figures in Black History you’ve likely never heard of. Yet, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander’s legacy as a Black economist and lawyer—a story of resilience, breaking barriers, and pioneering possibilities for women of color—is a clarion call to make room for others advancing public well-being in our work and social impact across the world.
Dr. Alexander was a woman of many firsts:
- The first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania in 1921
- The first African American woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School
- The first African American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania
- The first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a public service sorority in which we both share membership; its first public act was participating in the Women's Suffrage March in Washington, DC on March 3, 1913
- The first African American woman appointed as assistant city solicitor for the City of Philadelphia in 1928
Her passion for social justice caught the attention of President Harry S. Truman who appointed her to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. She made key recommendations to ensure federal protection from lynching, unfair employment practices, and persistent racial discrimination in the United States, which resulted in the report To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.
Dr. Alexander entered Penn’s law school in 1924 and experienced harassment and exclusion from study groups. However, in 1927 she became the first Black woman to graduate and to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. With both a Ph.D. and J.D., Sadie Alexander was one of the most highly educated people in the country.
She embraced social, political, and economic challenges inspired by the urgency of creating opportunities for future women and men of color. Her plight was not about her; her journey and calling were greater.
Dr. Alexander once reflected that “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.”
When I started at Mathematica, I was thrilled to learn that we were hosting the inaugural Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference in 2019. A brilliant vision, The Sadie Collective was cofounded by Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and Fanta Traore in 2018 to increase the representation of Black women in economics and related fields. Eager to support the inaugural conference, I joined my colleagues to engage and inspire women who attended from various postsecondary institutions across the country.
As a woman of color and Mathematica’s first director of foundation engagement—playing a key role to advance public well-being in partnership with the field of philanthropy—I did not take that historic moment lightly. This firsthand opportunity to serve as an ally to The Sadie Collective vision, recruit women of color to our field, and break barriers for aspiring economists who look like me was one that gave deeper purpose and meaning to my work as a cross-sector bridge-builder, opening doors for more economists of color and partnering with colleagues to apply an equity lens to our work.
As a practicum site under the Leaders in Equitable Evaluation and Diversity (LEEAD) Program, Mathematica plays a critical role in “expanding the bench” for diverse leaders in culturally responsive and equitable evaluation (CREE) who will advance the field of evaluation and improve the life outcomes of children, families, and communities. To build our muscle around the practice of equitable evaluation, we also hosted a racial equity training to deepen our collaboration with our foundation partners and the broader field of philanthropy. These are examples of the many ways we deliver on the promise of Dr. Alexander’s legacy.
This Black History Month, it is important that we all pause, reflect, and understand her compelling contributions as a servant leader and the platform she leveraged to make room for a more diverse and inclusive field of economics. She built a broader network of support to make a collective impact toward a more equitable future. She knew that future research, policies, and key decisions would need to be shaped by diverse, grounded perspectives for government, foundation, and state and local stakeholders, and trusted learning partners like Mathematica, to uncover solutions to the most complex social issues in the United States.
Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander’s unyielding passion to be the change gives us permission to keep knocking down doors and breaking barriers for future women and men of color. Whether you volunteer to better understand social challenges, collaborate with colleagues to practice or apply an equity lens to our research, or commit to one small act that creates possibilities for others to authentically partner in our work, you’ve honored her legacy.
As the 2020 Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference keynote speaker and 12th dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Bridget Terry Long, an African American woman, stated, “Beyond the numbers, we have to get to inclusion and belonging [in our work].”
This Black History Month and all year long, I invite you to join me in saying #ThankYouSadie for building a solid foundation for the future of our work, making an indelible mark that made room for more researchers and economists of color in the pursuit of improving public well-being.
To learn more about the 2020 Second Annual Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics and Related Fields, which occurred this February, please visit https://www.sadiecollective.org/.