African American Firsts
By Sheryl P. Simons | This year marks the 125th anniversary of the first African American to graduate from the UniversityDr. James M. Brister D1881. That milestone will be celebrated throughout 2006 with events commemorating Brister and the enormous contributions of people of color to the Penn alumni legacy. The Penn Alumni Diversity Alliance, the James M. Brister Society, and the Black Alumni Society will be presenting panel discussions and other programs examining topics such as economic inclusion and access to education for people of color and a historical look at efforts to broaden Penn’s “family tree” to include groups traditionally under-represented because of gender, race/ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
The BAS is sponsoring “Honoring Legends: Celebrating 125 Years of African American Excellence and Achievement,” which kicks off with a reception on January 26. These “legends” include individuals whose academic and professional achievements have enriched the nation and the world; their story is also one of strong family ties and generational commitments to Penn.
Many alumni have become reacquainted with the extraordinary life of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Ed’18 G’19 Gr’21 L’27 Hon’74 through the naming of the University-assisted Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia in her honor. But there is much more to her family’s story.
It was in November 1923 that Sadie Tanner Mossell wedded fellow alumnus Raymond Pace Alexander W’20. Alexander had recently passed the Pennsylvania bar after graduating from Harvard Law School. Sadie T.M. Alexander would be the first African-American woman to graduate from Penn Law School in 1927 and would join her husband’s law practice, where the two of them would help chart a pivotal course in Pennsylvania’s and America’s civil-rights history.
As a city councilman after World War II, Alexander would challenge the use of buffoonery and blackface makeup during the annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day; a resolution prohibiting such “degradation” passed in March 1954. Before the civil-rights marches and public protests of the 1960s, the legal work of the Alexander firm laid the foundation for breaking the will of the Stephen Girard Estate to allow youth of all races, and not just “poor male white orphan children,” to attend Philadelphia’s Girard College charity school.
Sadie Alexander’s father, Aaron Albert Mossell L1888, was the first African-American law school graduate, and her uncle, Nathan Francis Mossell M1882, was the first to graduate from the medical school. The Alexanders had two daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Rae Alexander-Minter GrEd’81, the latter of whom went on to receive her doctorate from Penn in 1981.
The Wrights are another remarkable early Penn family. Their story begins with Major Richard Robert Wright Sr., born in slavery in Georgia. After the Civil War ended, Wright was brought by his mother some 200 miles to attend a school for former slaves. There, in an exchange that inspired a once-famous poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, his class was asked by a retired Union general what message he should take to the North, and Wright spoke up: “Sir, tell them we are rising.” His
A major in the Spanish-American War (and the first African American to serve as Army Paymaster), Wright had already had a long career in education and politics when he decided to open a bank in Philadelphia. In preparation for this new ventureat age 67he enrolled in the Wharton School. The Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company opened at 1849 South Street in 1921. At the time, it was the only black bank in the North. When it was sold in 1957, Citizens and Southern had assets worth $5.5 million.
Wright’s son, Richard Robert Wright Jr. Gr’11, was one of the first blacks to earn a Ph.D at Penn. (In 1896, Lewis Baxter Moore had become Penn’s first black Ph.D., and one of the first in the country.) Decades later, Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre Ed’30 G’31 Gr’49 Hon’89 would join her father as the first African-American father and daughter Ph.D.s, just as Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and Aaron Albert Mossell had made history
Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre would go on to become the first African American to teach full-time in the Philadelphia public-school system and to serve as a senior high-school principal, as well as the first female president of the Philadelphia Board of Education. Among a number of charitable efforts, when she was 80 she established the “Tell Them We Are Rising” program. In it, she promised to pay college tuition for 116 sixth-graders in two poor North Philadelphia schools if they completed high school, which she wrote about in Tell Them We Are Rising: A Memoir of Faith in Education, published in 1997, the year before she died.
Another early alumnus who left an indelible mark on Penn’s campus and the city of Philadelphia is Julian Abele Ar1902, the first African American to graduate from the Department of Architecture and president of the Architectural Society in 1902, whose work includes Irvine Auditorium and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Abele’s early renderings came to the attention of Horace Trumbauer, a builder of French-style mansions, who reportedly financed his studies overseas with the promise of work when he returned to Philadelphia; Abele was chief designer for the firm for many years starting in 1909 and until Trumbauer’s death in 1938. With a nod to the times, it was understood that Abele would remain inside the shop and out of the spotlight; only much later did he receive the credit due for his inspired design work.
Though Trumbauer’s was the only name ever to appear on the firm’s work, during Abele’s years as chief designer projects included Harvard’s Widener Library, the Doris Duke mansion in Newport, R.I., the Duke Mansion in New York, NYU’s Graduate Institute of Fine Arts, and Duke University’s chapel in North Carolina. Closer to home were designs for the Philadelphia Free Library main branch and the Family Court buildings on Vine Street, as well as Irvine and the Art Museum.
These and many other “trailblazing accomplishments” will be recognized over the course of the year-long “Legends” celebration, says Christopher Sample WEv’03, who chairs the BAS special events committee for the Brister 125th Anniversary, which will feature community outreach as well as symposiums and guest lectures. For example, guests at the Penn Relays BBQ and Volunteer Rally in April will be asked to register for a BAS or community-based service activity. “And there are scholarship and endowment targets we hope to benefit, as well,” he adds.
“Our vision is to make a lasting mark,” says BAS President Ray Jones W’73, “which will not only honor the past but will stand well beyond our time as an indelible testament of African-American contribution to the preeminence of our alma mater.”
Sheryl P. Simons WG’77 is a member of the 125th Anniversary Steering Committee. She wishes to dedicate this article to Mrs. Elaine D. Simons, an English master’s scholar at Bennett Hall, and her father, Mr. William H. Simons, who attended Wharton Executive Education.
©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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