Raymond Pace Alexander
October 13, 1897 – November 24, 1974
Notable: Activist & Attorney
Raymond Pace Alexander was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Virginia Pace and Hillard Boone Alexander, one of their five children. His parents had been enslaved in Virginia and moved to Philadelphia in 1880 where they met and married two years later. Alexander’s father supported the family working as a riding instructor, giving lessons to wealthy White riding students.
Unfortunately, Alexander’s mother died when he was a child, shortly after giving birth to his youngest sibling. (Sources vary but Alexander’s mother seems to have died from pneumonia when he was seven or eleven.) To help support himself and the family, Alexander had been and continued working odd jobs which included dock work, shoeshining, and delivering newspapers before school. His most impactful job was at the Metropolitan Opera House where the owner arranged a scholarship for him to attend a well-regarded all-boys high school.
While in his teens, Alexander attended an event where Carter G. Woodson and William H. Lewis gave lectures. Woodson, “The Father Of Black History”, gave an inspirational speech about African and Black American history. William H. Lewis was an attorney who had a backstory much like Alexander’s. The early experience of meeting and listening to these two men would inspire Alexander to become a lawyer and use the law to fight discrimination and achieve equality for Black people.
Alexander was a hard-working student and graduated valedictorian of his class. His diligence was rewarded with another scholarship which allowed him to attend the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). He continued to work while attending college holding jobs as a Pullman porter and waiter. Alexander earned a graduate degree from Wharton becoming the first Black person to do so. He later earned a law degree from Harvard University and was the only Black person in the law school’s graduating class of 1923.
It’s worth noting that all of this was accomplished by the age of 26 as Alexander completed undergrad with honors in three years and then master’s and law degrees in three years. After graduation, Alexander returned to Philadelphia where he married Sadie Tanner Mossell, a former classmate from Penn. Yet, despite his credentials, Alexander’s applications for employment were denied by multiple law firms. In response, Alexander established a law firm and focused on civil rights and desegregation.
Alexander’s fight against discrimination had begun two years before as a law student when he filed suit against Madison Square Garden which had refused him entry. In a similar case, he filed suit against the Aldine Theater for denying him and his friends entry. The case began in 1924 and ultimately resulted in the desegregation of Philadelphia’s theaters. Alexander would contribute to and in many cases spearhead cases to fight back against segregation, which included the court case to desegregate Berwyn Schools which ended school segregation in the state.
While Alexander would be largely known for his various civil rights cases, he was also a successful criminal attorney. Alexander argued for a retrial and then obtained an acquittal on grounds of self-defense for Louise Thomas, a Black woman who had been sentenced to death. This case took place early in Alexander’s career and helped to disprove the then widely promoted belief that Black attorneys were inferior.
In time, Alexander’s wife joined the law firm which by the mid-1930s would become successful enough to purchase land and pay for the construction of its own office building. Held in high esteem, he was later called upon by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Trenton Six case. Alexander successfully defended two of the men who had been wrongly accused of murder. He was also a consultant on Brown v. Board of Education.
Alexander aspired to become a judge and hold other public offices in hopes of furthering the fight for equality. His early campaigns were unsuccessful due to the entrenched racial bias of the political system. But in 1951, Alexander was elected to the City Council and became the first Black person to represent North Philadelphia. He would hold the position for eight years during which he was a leader in the fight to end Girard College’s segregation policy.
Finally, in 1959, Alexander achieved his dream of becoming a judge. He was appointed to the Common Pleas Court, becoming its first Black judge. Alexander made efforts to carry out his vision for reform by introducing an alternative probation program that combined social work with community and faith-based groups.
Unfortunately, Alexander’s contributions and achievements would be overshadowed by other figures during the tumultuous 1960s. Once he became a judge, Alexander was no longer directly involved with individual activist campaigns such as desegregating Girard College. Alexander came to be seen as part of the old guard, having chosen to fight segregation in courtrooms. While differing ideologies would result in a contentious relationship with some of the more militant activists of the time, they had shared beliefs in Black pride, empowerment, and self-determination.
Raymond Pace Alexander died of a heart attack at his desk on November 24, 1974, at the age of 77. He was survived by his wife and daughter.
- “Alexander, Raymond Pace.” 2023. Encyclopedia.Com. Encyclopedia.com. September 22, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alexander-raymond-pace.
- “Alexander, Raymond Pace.” n.d. Omeka RSS. Accessed October 2, 2023. http://northerncity.library.temple.edu/exhibits/show/civil-rights-in-a-northern-cit/people-and-places/alexander–raymond-pace.
- Nelson, H. Viscount. 2020. “Raymond Pace Alexander (1897-1974).” Blackpast.Org. December 2, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/alexander-raymond-pace-1897-1974/.
- “Raymond Pace Alexander.” 2020. University Archives and Records Center. University of Pennsylvania. July 10, 2020. https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-people/biography/raymond-pace-alexander/.
- “Raymond Pace Alexander.” n.d. PhilaPlace. Accessed October 2, 2023b. http://m.philaplace.org/story/1513/.
- “Raymond Pace Alexander.” n.d. University Press of Mississippi. Accessed October 2, 2023a. https://www.upress.state.ms.us/Books/R/Raymond-Pace-Alexander2.
- Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander
- Fred Gray
- Jane Bolin
- Charles Hamilton Houston
- Eunice Hunton Carter
- Constance Baker Motley
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