For years, the story of Dr. Sadie T. M. Alexander’s legacy has been limited to three Google search pages with sparse information and out of date references. But in February 2019, at the inaugural Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Black Women in Economics — Ms. Alexander was alive. Her spirit was in the smiles of young economic majors who longed for safety and familiarity. Her story was their story. And while the de jure segregation of Ms. Alexander’s day and age was her fight, the de facto segregation of today was a weight carried on the shoulders of each attendee. In their college classrooms, the young women were always the “only,” but for 8 hours, “only” was a word uttered many times but most importantly, it was not a feeling that was felt. In the early 1900’s Sadie knew that feeling and while she couldn’t promise to solve the problem, she could make it a little easier for young women today.
In the Fall of 1921, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was 1 of 3 black graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. The Tulsa Race Uprising and the burning of Black Wall Street in May of that year released an unforgettable stench of injustice into the hearts of all those who were witness to it. Images of black bodies burned and beaten were etched into the minds of all those who saw their blackness under attack, however far or near. And from Tulsa, Oklahoma to North Philadelphia, there was a call to action — a call that a young Sadie Alexander heard as she readied her spirit to begin her segregated and gendered PhD economics program at the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Alexander was answering a call much greater than her and she had to know that.
Between 2006 and 2015, only 52 doctorates of economics were awarded to black women. Diversity in the study of economics has been an issue for years, but that’s just the beginning. The deep rooted racial isolation and the trauma associated with it is also an unfortunate thread sewing together the lives of Dr. Sadie T. M. Alexander and the lives of young black women in the field today. At the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Alexander and her fellow African American counterparts were punished for their identities by having to eat their lunches outside everyday. Rain, sleet, snow, and extreme heat became forced friends with the determined bunch. The social hour that most humans enjoy each others companies while refueling became a time to reinforce their blackness and affirm their humanity. A time to cry, to laugh, to complain, and to plot on how their experiences were going to change the world. At lunch, they found shelter from the forces of nature and racism alike in each other, they knew that, and somehow the weather was never that bad.
From 1919–1923, Ms. Alexander found solace from the jeers of her white counterparts in the arms of sisterhood, scholarship, and service as the First National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc,. She joined the ranks of suffragettes like Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells- Barnett who pleaded womanhood but instantly became relegated to a cage with bars made of race and locks made of gender. Even after she graduated from law school, her femininity still denied her jobs at the largest law firms and her racial identity denied her roles in local government. The Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color described by Kimberle Crenshaw was an internal story brewing within Sadie on her walks to class everyday. Unknowingly, she passed by plots of land that would be erected with buildings named after her. Maybe somehow Sadie knew that she was leading the fight for intersectionality and creating a safe space for those who checked the two bottom boxes.
She couldn’t cook, had a Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D in Economics, and was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. Sadie was not a lady of her time. But she made it okay for the women that came after her. Though her story seemed so long ago, the daily civil rights struggle of America continues. Somehow the same stories of discrimination in Sadie’s age are still prevalent in the economics classrooms. The Sadie Collective of today is in many ways like the lunch hour of Sadie’s days at the University of Pennsylvania. The Collective provides hope and smiles, tears and spaces to be angry. All are welcome but there is an underlying respect that lacks guilt and uplifts truth. Sadie crafted and curated intentional spaces with an attention to intersectionality, spaces that would be named after her over 100 years later.
The Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference centered black women who center black women on their own personal quests for economic justice. In the eyes of PhD economists like Dr. Julianne Malveaux and Dr. Lisa Cook, black women aren’t just reduced to denigrate statistics between commas, but are uplifted as examples of what equity can truly look like. Black women economists are our first line of defense in the war for economic justice and must be respected as such. Dr. Sadie T. M Alexander kept that in mind and kept going to class because her silent, revolutionary Ph.D in economics was the solution to a greater problem. She wasn’t going to finish the equation that she started to solve but she would confidently be handing the chalk to those who came after her like Dr. Valerie Wilson and she knew Valerie would hand it down too.
Ms. Alexander and her husband, Raymond functioned as black North Philly’s legal team. The two endured the elements while eating their lunches together outside at Penn and used that fuel to write some of Philadelphia’s earliest public desegregation laws. Taking care of their immediate family was one task and taking care of their extended black family who followed the famous Broad Street of Philadelphia to their doorsteps of Judge Alexander was another. Their daughters recall peeking their heads from the stairs after dinner as their parents filed legal petitions and passed out hope in the community. The hope in the room rose with a warmth that only your soul recognized. So when Anna & Julianne & Valerie & Lisa gathered together at that conference in February, they too peeked their heads out to get a glimpse and a chance to gather around Sadie. Just like the neighborhood in Philly did. All smiling, all saying thank you Ms. Sadie. She may not have been around to respond but somehow she knew.