Penn Law Honors First Black Woman Graduate, Announces Three Full Tuition Scholarships
Penn Law has announced three full-tuition scholarships to honor and pay tribute to the legacy of its first black woman graduate, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander. Suggested by Penn’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA), the scholarship will be awarded to admitted JD students beginning the program from the fall of 2021 or thereafter.
Ted Ruger, Dean at Penn Law and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law, said, “Available for application beginning in Spring 2021, these scholarships will be given to incoming students whose education, experience, and professional commitments advance racial justice and honor the extraordinary work and legacy of Dr. Alexander. They’re one part of a much larger strategy to ensure that our students have the support to advance equity and justice through their personal and professional endeavors, as Dr. Alexander did.”
As per the statement from Penn Law, these scholarships will be awarded to candidates who can demonstrate a desire to advance racial and economic justice throughout their professional lives, and those with the potential and determination to achieve cross-disciplinary and groundbreaking academic and professional success, in line with Dr. Alexander’s work.
Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Penn Law, said, “We are grateful to our Black Law Students Association for suggesting that we create scholarships honoring the legacy of Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander. It feels particularly appropriate to honor her memory with scholarships that recognize the excellence of our applicants and reduce financial barriers to law school.”
Dr. Alexander experienced constant racism and discrimination throughout her studies at the University of Pennsylvania. When she received Distinguished markings in all ten courses of her third and final year of undergraduate studies, she was presented with a tiny ceremonial broom for making a “clean sweep of D’s,” instead of the Phi Beta Kappa key. Other incidents include denial of hot meals on campus or at neighborhood restaurants to black students and denial of access to library books to black students. When she wanted to attend an economics and insurance class at the Wharton School along with another female student Mary Stewart, the professor asked them to exit the class citing the reason that he did not teach women. She wrote down her encounters of overt racism and prejudice in “A Clean Sweep,” an article published in a 1972 Pennsylvania Gazette.
Beating all odds, Dr. Alexander excelled academically as a student throughout her studies. She went on to become the first black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in economics. Despite holding a doctorate’s degree in economics, she could not find employment in economics in Philadelphia as companies refused to hire a black woman.
Later, she returned to Penn and became the first black woman to enroll in the School of Law at Penn. While pursuing her J.D., she faced racism from the Law School Dean William E. Mikell. He tried to prevent her from joining other women’s student clubs and even attempted to take away her chance of serving on the Law Review. Yet, she received support from fellow students and other faculty members and became the first black woman to serve as associate editor.
She also became the first woman to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania and joined her husband in their private practice. Her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, was the first black graduate of the Wharton School, and later, he studied law at Harvard. During her 50 years of career as a lawyer and civil rights activist, she challenged and overcame many barriers of race and gender.
She served as the Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Philadelphia twice, from 1928 to 1930 and then from 1934 to 1938. She also established a legal aid bureau for helping African Americans who could not afford legal fees. She also headed the City of Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Rights. She served on President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. In 1981, she served as the chairwoman of the White House Conference on Aging under President Jimmy Carter.
The announcement from Penn Law also mentions that the past year revealed the many layers of racism and inequalities still present in the legal system and reiterates the Law School’s commitment to work towards a more inclusive educational environment and to break the legacy of racial and economic injustice.