By Herb Boyd
During her extraordinarily productive life, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander accomplished a number of incomparable breakthroughs: the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S.; the first Black woman enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law; the first Black woman to practice law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; and one of the founders of Delta Sigma Theta, as well as its first president, among other pioneering advances. This was just an iota of information about her formidable past that was shared with an audience on Thursday evening at the New School for Social Research by Dr. Nina Banks, who was there to recount her legacy as part of establishing a fellowship at the school to honor Dr. Alexander.
Given her outstanding achievements in the field of economics, Dr. Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University who is working on a biography and speeches of Dr. Alexander, is eminently qualified for the occasion, a point noted by Dean William Milberg in his introduction. Her nearly hour-long lecture, accompanied by a montage of photos, was entitled “Fascism and Race,” and focused on how Dr. Alexander’s research and analysis revealed the connection between these societal vectors.
She began with a brief outline of Dr. Alexander’s odyssey, noting that she was born Jan. 2, 1898, in Philadelphia and was the product and a member of a distinguished family, including her husband Judge Raymond Pace Alexander. Her grandfather was Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, her uncle was the famous painter Henry O. Tanner, and another uncle, Nathan F. Mossell, was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania medical school and later a founder of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Training School for Nurses in 1895. Notable among the relatives in attendance was Dr. Alexander’s daughter, Dr. Rae Alexander Minter, whose cogent comments during the Q&A segment added insight and gravitas.
Dr. Banks then immediately cut to the chase, citing the rise of Nazism in Germany, “whose policies were already in place in the United States,” according to Dr. Alexander, she observed. She devoted considerable time to chronicling Dr. Alexander’s pursuit of fascism even showing a photo of Father Coughlin, a despicable racist and anti-Semite on the screen during her outline. To this end, she discussed several characteristics of fascism—racial myths, nativism, propaganda, criminality, hierarchy, unreality, sexual anxiety, etc. all cited in one of Dr. Alexander’s speeches. One of Dr. Alexander’s speeches that was of particular resonance dealt with the genocidal steps to exterminate Jews, savagely denying their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “The right of all individuals to earn a decent living must be achieved if we here at home and throughout the world are to have the kind of life we call a democracy,” she said.
This outlook was consistent with the conditions Black Americans faced, a case of “intensified racism,” as Dr. Alexander defined social and political affairs in the 1930s. And they would continue through the post-World War II period, in which Dr. Alexander would be part of President Truman’s 15-person Committee on civil rights, popularly known as “To Secure These Rights.” Even then, aspects of fascism and totalitarianism were on her mind as well as race and segregation when she noted, “The separation of children in public schools, the building of Black and white army, in which Puerto Ricans are placed on the basis of their skin and the texture of their hair, while all native born citizens with one drop of Negro blood on their birth certificates are placed in the Black army, creates in a democracy the totalitarian concept of ‘my race’ and causes men and women who might otherwise have maintained the equalitarian morality of their forebears to look down on fellowmen, who differ in physical appearance but not in ability nor in human dignity by which all men are endowed by their creator.”
It was on such a note that Dr. Banks ended her highly informative presentation—and a speech that is certain to be found in her collection, an endeavor that required her to comb through more than 80 boxes of memorabilia. Right to the end of her eventful life, Dr. Banks said, there was no compromise on democracy, and several years before her death on Nov. 1, 1989, she was just as outspoken as ever during her acceptance speech of the Award of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. She told the chair and the officers of the society, “I wish to express my appreciation for your affording me the opportunity to join in celebrating 200 years of dedication to your purpose, not only to abolish slavery but to relieve Negroes unlawfully held in bondage and to improve the condition of the African race.” She not only improved the conditions of her race but to the general social, political, and certainly the economic affairs, where through the collective in her name her legacy is ensured.