125 Influential People and Ideas
Alexander

1896

Through a Wharton fellowship, W.E.B. DuBois undertook his classic study of the social and economic conditions of urban blacks.

Pioneering Lawyer, Judge, and Civil Rights Leader

Raymond Pace Alexander, W’20

Raymond Pace Alexander, Wharton’s first black graduate, challenged many segregated institutions in the Philadelphia area, making an indelible impression on the city and the profession of law.

Alexander beat incredible odds as a young boy. His mother died when he was 12, and Alexander was forced to support himself. He managed to maintain stellar academic credentials and enrolled with a scholarship, graduating in 1920.

After Wharton, Alexander graduated from Harvard Law School in 1923. That year he married Sadie Tanner Mossell, who in 1927 became the first black woman to earn a law degree from Penn, where her father Aaron Albert Mossell was the first black graduate. She was also the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in economics, also obtained at Penn.

Alexander’s victory in that case marked an end to de jure segregation in Pennsylvania schools.

The founder of Philadelphia’s premier black law firm, Raymond Alexander was not content with breaking barriers. He and his wife both landed top legal and political jobs in the city. He was president of the National Bar Association from 1933 to 1935, and won election to the Philadelphia city council from 1951 to 1958. In 1959, Alexander became the first black judge on the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia.

While his highest profile roles were as counsel for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and other clients, he first gained notice as a plaintiff. In 1924, he was excluded from a Chestnut Street theater showing The Ten Commandments. He took the theater owners to court and won their pledge never to discriminate again.

He made headlines later for his involvement in other landmark cases. In the early 1930s, he took two Chester County school districts to court after they tried to establish racially segregated school systems. His victory in that case marked an end to de jure segregation in Pennsylvania schools. In the Trenton Six Case of 1948, he eventually cleared black defendants falsely accused of killing a white shopkeeper — a case that Alexander won on appeal with the help of attorney Thurgood Marshall, the future first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Alexander died in 1974.