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March 28, 2005
Malveaux makes room for Sadie in WHM keynote
BY Michael Terrazas
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander did things differently. As a young black woman, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at a time when young black women simply did not enroll at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1921, she left Penn’s Wharton School as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in economics. Barred from an appropriate faculty position at every university she tried, Alexander later turned to a highly successful career in law; she was the first black woman to get a law degree from Penn, the first to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, and the first to practice law in Philadelphia.
Suffice it to say, Alexander did things very differently. All this made her an ideal choice to be highlighted in the keynote lecture for Emory’s Women’s History Month celebration, which this year carries the theme, “Daring to Do Things Differently.” And on the evening of March 23 in the School of Law’s Tull Auditorium, Alexander received her just attention, as keynote speaker Julianna Malveaux delivered a powerful account of her life in “Making Room for Sadie—A Diversity Metaphor.”
“I can’t think of someone who did things more differently than Sadie,” said Malveaux, a teacher, author, syndicated columnist and frequent radio and TV guest who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the field Alexander loved but was prevented from pursuing: economics.
In a strong yet conversational tone, Malveaux sprinkled wry humor throughout a lecture that described how Alexander could “find no room” in the field she loved but did not let that stop her from succeeding. After getting her Ph.D. but before turning to law, Alexander took a job at the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. “This,” Malveaux said, “was like taking a rocket scientist and putting her behind a counter at Safeway.”
Even then, and after she began to study law, Alexander continued to read economics and publish articles. Later on, as she established a successful family law practice in Philadelphia, Alexander became so renowned that “when men got out of line, women would say, “Get back in line or I’m going to send you Sadie,’” Malveaux said.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a black woman in her day achieving more than did Alexander, who Malveaux said served on presidential commissions from Hoover through Kennedy. She also founded the Delta Sigma Theta national sorority, serving as president for five years.
In describing Alexander’s life, Malveaux’s larger point was: What might she have accomplished had she been allowed to pursue the field she loved? It was years, even decades after Alexander got her Ph.D., Malveaux said, before economics began to seriously study the impact of African Americans or women in the work force.
“Will we make room for Sadie when we write the history books? She stepped up, but we didn’t step up to her,” Malveaux said. “What we have to deal with is: What else can we stand to lose? That’s what we need to think about when we [deal with institutions] that ‘don’t do diversity.’”
Helping Malveaux get her points across was a healthy dose of humor. For example, recognizing her audience, she said at one point, “Here’s what happens in academe: When you have a problem, they will make you chair of a committee to solve your problem. But they will also find your biggest enemy or detractor, and make him your co-chair.”
In introducing Malveaux, Center for Women Director Ali Crown pointed out that her address also served as a the Jessica Glasser Memorial Lecture, named for the 1996 alumna of Emory College who died in an auto accident just days after graduation. Glasser’s father, Richard Glasser, attended Malveaux’s lecture and presented her a gift to commemorate the occasion.