Question of the Week
Who was the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School?
Answer: Raymond Pace Alexander
Pioneering lawyer, judge, and civil rights leader, Raymond Pace Alexander was born in Philadelphia in 1898. Alexander surmounted incredible odds as a boy. Following his mother’s death, Alexander’s father sent all five of his children, including Alexander, to live with their maternal aunt in Northern Philadelphia. Alexander’s first job was unloading fish at the local docks in Philadelphia before school each morning. He later attended Philadelphia’s Central High School and was the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He furthered his studies at Harvard Law School, and married Sadie Tanner Mossell, the first black woman to earn a law degree from Penn.
In his legal practice, Alexander was involved in several landmark criminal and civil rights cases. In 1933, black parents from Chester County came to Alexander for legal assistance to fight against school segregation. The school district had elected to build a new elementary school, but to keep the old Easttown elementary school open “for the instruction of certain people” which meant “for colored students.” Alexander won the case, which marked an end to de jure segregation in Pennsylvania schools. Alexander’s victory impressed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who then hired him to represent two black defendants falsely accused of killing a white shopkeeper in the Trenton Six case.
In 1951, Alexander was elected City Councilman and held his position for eight years. As a councilman, he spearheaded efforts to desegregate Girard College. In 1959, Alexander successfully accomplished his lifelong goal to become the first black judge in the Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia. During his ten-year term with the court, Alexander utilized the law and his judicial status to obtain civil rights for the African American community, as well as improve race relations. After his term, from 1970 until his death in 1974, Alexander served as a Senior Judge.
In HSP's library is the book Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia by David A. Canton (call number KF 373 .A385 C36 2010). Additional resources on civil rights can be found in both our library and manuscript collections.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.