In 1921, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander became the first Black woman in America to earn a PhD in economics. But that didn’t help when she went looking for a job in Philadelphia teaching economics. The doors were firmly shut.
Instead, she took an actuarial position with the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Eventually she also earned a law degree from Penn, another first for a Black women.
Economic analysis, data and statistics, risk analysis, racial equity, and economic justice — these all became hallmarks of the expansive intellectual life of this under-appreciated pioneer.
A fresh look at Alexander’s pathbreaking work comes with the publication of Democracy, Race, and Justice: The Speeches and Writings of Sadie T. M. Alexander, a compilation of speeches and writings that brings her public voice into focus. The volume is edited by Nina Banks, economics professor at Bucknell.
Banks traces the evolution of Alexander’s thinking as expressed in her speeches, and Alexander spoke often — to religious groups, benevolent societies, union workers, civil rights organizations, universities, women’s clubs, and more.
As Banks notes: “These speeches are Alexander’s most impressive body of work and are as worth of inclusion in the canon of economic thought as the articles and treatises published by other major economists.”
Included are Alexander’s remarks in March 1945 at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College.
“If full employment could be obtained for the destructive purposes of war, why can we not unite to achieve it for the constructive purposes of peace?”
The title of Alexander’s remarks was “The Role of Women in the Economic Life of the Postwar South,” but at heart it was an argument for economic and political policies that would ensure full employment and racial equality.
Looking ahead to the expected surrender of Nazi Germany, she knew that millions of US workers would be leaving full employment in wartime industrial production. Full absorption into the post-war economy was unlikely, so vast unemployment was looming. Black workers would be hit especially hard.
Economic and racial justice, to Alexander, would mean continued full employment as the nation transitioned to a peacetime economy.
“If full employment by determination of the people and the governed could be obtained for the destructive purposes of war,” she asked, “why can we not unite to achieve it for the constructive purposes of peace?”
Worsening the prospects of Black Americans was the specter of racial violence and discrimination, given the eruptions of racial turmoil that so often in US history had accompanied periods of economic downturn — and the discrimination that Alexander had known in her own life.
Her economic analysis was shaped by her lived experience.
“Racial discrimination undermined Alexander’s life as well as the collective memory of her work and breadth of economic thought,” says Banks in an interview with Promarket.
“Indeed, she identified economic deprivation as the major obstacle for political, racial and economic equality, all of which remain elusive today.”
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