The Lost Archives of Sadie Alexander : Planet Money The work of our first Black economist was lost to history. Professor Nina Banks set out on a quest to find it. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

The Lost Archives of Sadie Alexander

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Just a heads up. This is the second of two stories we're doing this summer about the economist Sadie Alexander. But you do not need to have heard the first story to enjoy this one. You can listen to that one later. All right. Here's the show.




There was a single piece of writing that changed the way we think about economic history and completely changed the life of Professor Nina Banks. It was an essay.

NINA BANKS: Published in 1991 in the American Economic Review, it's called "Missed Opportunity."

BERAS: "Missed Opportunity" was about Sadie Alexander. The essay told the story of how Sadie was the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S. in 1921. But when she tried to get a job in the field, she was functionally shut out.

MALONE: So Sadie Alexander went back to school and became an attorney - a very important civil rights attorney.

BANKS: The thinking was that when she became a practicing attorney and she had a very distinguished and important career as an attorney, that she had lost interest in economics. That was pretty much the end of the conversation.

BERAS: And this essay argued that Sadie Alexander represented a huge missed opportunity for economics. Had things been different, there would have been this whole body of economic research that Sadie would have contributed to the field, especially when you consider the one major piece of research that she had done while still in economics - her Ph.D. thesis.

MALONE: Yeah. For this thesis, Sadie Alexander looked at the economic conditions of Black families that were moving from the South to Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration. It was a massive undertaking with tons of data, intimate interviews with people about their finances. It was focused on this corner of the world that other economists were ignoring.

BERAS: And as Nina Banks read about all this in the essay, it spoke to her personally. She also was a Black woman and had also recently gotten her economics Ph.D.

BANKS: I had done dissertation research that was also focused on African American migrants from the South to a city in Pennsylvania - to Pittsburgh.

MALONE: Wait, that was your - that was the research you were doing, very similar to Sadie Alexander's research?

BANKS: Isn't that crazy? It was a perfect match.

BERAS: So there's Nina, reading this essay that says, look at this huge loss, that the field of economics never got more than that Great Migration thesis from Sadie Alexander.

MALONE: But then Nina Banks had a thought. Did Sadie Alexander really stop doing economics? Or is it that we just haven't looked in the right places?

BANKS: My mission was simply to figure out if Sadie Alexander had continued to think about economic issues.

MALONE: And why do you want to know that?

BANKS: Because if Sadie Alexander had continued to think about economic issues, there was the possibility then that I could restore the economic thought of Sadie Alexander to the economics profession and to restore her life as an economist.


MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

BERAS: I'm Erika Beras. Today on the show, the story of how Nina Banks set out to uncover and recover the work of our first Black economist, Sadie Alexander.

MALONE: And what she found were economic sting operations, historic handwriting problems and at least one policy suggestion about 80 years ahead of its time.


BERAS: Nina Banks read that "Missed Opportunity" essay about a decade after it came out, when she'd just started as a professor at Bucknell University.

MALONE: This was the early 2000s. And Nina specializes in what's called feminist economics. And one of the kinds of research within that discipline is, like, going back through archives and recovering the work of early women who were sort of, like, bulldozed over by history.

BERAS: But Nina's question about Sadie Alexander was, is there any work to recover at all? The "Missed Opportunity" essay said that Sadie got her Ph.D., had been run out of the profession and seemed to have left economics behind completely.

MALONE: Sadie Alexander died in 1989. But a bunch of her papers and letters and speeches were donated to her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. So Nina headed there, down into a basement building, digging through boxes of Sadie Alexander's things, looking for any sign that she had not completely given up economics.

BANKS: And as I read through some of these files, my heart started racing. Because as I was reading through some of the letters, I realized that she was talking about things that were macroeconomic. And I know that because macroeconomics is really boring to me.


BANKS: So my eyes were glazing over because I thought, wow, this is macroeconomics.

BERAS: It was something about currency exchange and pricing. But more importantly, it was proof that Sadie Alexander had not completely left economics behind. What else might there be?

MALONE: And Nina Banks had been thinking at this point about her next big research project. And you know, she was thinking she could continue that Great Migration research she'd been doing. She had some other options in maybe developmental economics.

BANKS: But there was just something about Sadie Alexander that grabbed me. We had to rethink everything that we thought that we knew about Sadie Alexander at that point.

BERAS: Sadie Tanner Mossell - later, Sadie Alexander - was born in 1898. Her father was the first Black person to graduate from law school at Penn. Her aunt was the first female doctor of any race in Alabama. Her uncle was a renowned painter.

MALONE: When Sadie enrolled in graduate school, she was studying history, but switched to economics and then got her Ph.D. in 1921.

BERAS: Had Sadie been a white woman, she maybe could have gotten a job teaching economics at a women's college. If she had been a Black man, she maybe could have gotten a job teaching at a historically Black college or university.

MALONE: But Sadie Alexander could not find a professorship. And so she went back to school, got her law degree, became the first Black woman to pass the bar in Pennsylvania and would have still had trouble finding work at a law firm, except she was hired at her husband's law practice, where they both became important figures in civil rights law.

BERAS: Sadie went on to hold positions at the ACLU and the National Urban League. She was appointed to a presidential committee on civil rights by Harry Truman. And she gave speeches all over the place - Toronto, Detroit, Tallahassee, Baltimore. She was incredibly prolific.

BANKS: It's mind-boggling. And I tell you, with all the time that I have spent in those archives, going through those huge boxes, I still have not managed to get through all of it.

MALONE: The work that Nina Banks was doing was really a kind of economic archaeology - like, going through these boxes and boxes of sometimes typed, often handwritten, files and letters and speeches.

BANKS: The hardest part of this whole project was reconstructing her speeches. Her handwriting was extremely sloppy.

MALONE: Really?

BANKS: This little squiggle, I think, is an L. This squiggle is a P. I had to create a key of her squiggles.

BERAS: This was a full-fledged code-cracking operation. It involved magnifying glasses and large photocopies and her secret weapon at least once, Adam Smith specialists.

MALONE: Yeah. Nina found a copy of one of Sadie Alexander's earlier speeches - a speech that was about Black achievement in America. But there was this one cluster of squiggly handwriting in the middle that Nina couldn't figure out. To Nina's eye, it looked like Sadie had written, quote, "squiggle-squiggle of the market, as Adam Smith named it," unquote. What was that squiggle-squiggle supposed to be?

BANKS: I sent an email to three different Adam Smith scholars. And I promise you, within five minutes, one of them wrote back.

MALONE: I imagine Adam Smith scholars waiting their entire lives for emails like this. But the quote was, "the higgling and bargaining of the market." And you know, the fact that Sadie Alexander was quoting Adam Smith in the middle of a speech that wasn't, like, obviously about economics - that was a pretty good sign for Nina's quest.

BERAS: And as Nina kept digging into these speeches, she started finding other things. For example, she finds this speech from 1968. And we do not have a recording of this speech. But...


SADIE ALEXANDER: My husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, and I were both born in Philadelphia.

MALONE: This - what you are hearing - is one of the very few recordings that there are of Sadie Alexander. It's an old interview. And in this, she basically quotes parts of the speech that we would like to talk about. So you're going to hear her voice again in a second.

BERAS: So this speech - it's 1968. Sadie was 70 years old, being honored at a luncheon at a very fancy hotel in Philadelphia. And she's telling stories about the civil rights work she and her husband, Raymond, did in Philadelphia.

MALONE: She tells this one story in particular about a guy who managed the theater right across the street from their law office.


ALEXANDER: Do you know that when the movie theater at 19th and Chestnut Street opened with the playing of "The Ten Commandments," they wouldn't let a colored person in there.

BERAS: The manager of this theater was breaking the law turning Black patrons away. And to prove that, Sadie and her husband, Raymond, organized a group of so-called testers.

MALONE: The way it worked is that they would find, let's say, two women who were similar age, similar styles, but different races. Then those two testers would go to the theater and see how each was received.

BERAS: The Black tester was turned away. Sadie and her husband had the theater owner arrested. And when he got out, they tested the theater again. The Black patron was turned away again. Raymond and Sadie had him arrested again. It happened again and again and again.


ALEXANDER: And we had that man arrested so often that one day he came over, and he took his handkerchief, and he was waving it in the air. And he said, I surrender. He said, they can take my job. But my wife can't stand it. Excuse me.

MALONE: Or as Sadie told the story at the luncheon, quote, "I recall so well the manager waving a white handkerchief and saying, my wife cannot stand of my telephoning, I'm arrested again."

BERAS: She and her husband sent these testers to movie theaters and restaurants and hotels all around Philadelphia - hundreds of testers.

MALONE: And as Nina Banks was reading all of this on the paper copy of this speech, she was blown away.

BANKS: That's the other part here that is really important, is that whenever I read through their activities, what I - what - the language I use is that it's an audit study.

MALONE: Oh, you recognize this? You kind of recognize this from economics?

BANKS: Yes. And so from my knowledge of the economics of discrimination, what I know is that Sadie and Raymond were some of the first people in our country to conduct audit studies to test for racial discrimination.

BERAS: We now see audit studies used all the time, having two people apply for the same job or try to rent the same apartment. It's become a standard way to isolate the variable of race and test for discrimination.

MALONE: And here was Sadie Alexander, talking about this groundbreaking kind of work in a luncheon speech that Nina Banks had to pull out of a box to find.

BANKS: There's no other way to say it. It's economics. This is every bit as important as the articles that would've been published in an economic journal. This is her body of economic thought.

MALONE: Sadie Alexander never had the chance to write and publish her economic work in economic journals, but it was dawning on Nina Banks that Sadie was still doing the work and getting it out there. She was just doing it one audience and one speech at a time. After the break.


MALONE: We asked Nina Banks, like, if we could get anybody in the world to read the speeches of Sadie Alexander, who should we get? And she told us, well, I mean, if you're looking for a famous person...

BANKS: Tessa Thompson...


BANKS: ...Looks like - to me, looks like a young Sadie Alexander. But I have one better for you.


BANKS: Sadie Alexander has one great-granddaughter. That's the person.

MALONE: Interesting.

BANKS: That's the person who is the most appropriate.

BERAS: The numbers are going (ph)?

NICOLE LEWIS: Yup. And the red light is on.

BERAS: OK. And you can hear me OK, Nicole?

LEWIS: I can hear you great.


MALONE: Nicole Lewis is an investigative reporter who worked at The Washington Post and The Marshall Project. She is also the great-granddaughter of Sadie Alexander.

BERAS: Did you meet her?

LEWIS: I did when I was a child. I think she was in her 90s, and I was about 2, you know, before she passed. So I don't really have living memories of her.

MALONE: However, Nicole did hear lots of stories about her, about Sadie Alexander's legal work, about her as a mother and a grandmother, but really very little about Sadie as an economist.

BERAS: But then in 2010, this blockbuster book came out called "The Warmth Of Other Suns." It's a book about the Great Migration, which Sadie Alexander did her Ph.D. thesis on.

MALONE: And Nicole's reading this book, and it mentions her great-grandmother.

LEWIS: And she's listed as one of the scholars who actually blamed Black people for, you know, coming to the northern cities and causing them to decline.

MALONE: Specifically, there are two quotes from Sadie Alexander, and you'll hear the author uses her maiden name, Mossell. Here's the first quote, as pulled from the audiobook version.


ROBIN MILES: (Reading) With few exceptions, wrote the economist Sadie Mossell of the migration to Philadelphia, the migrants were untrained, often illiterate and generally void of culture.

MALONE: And here is the second quote.


MILES: (Reading) The presence of the migrants in such large numbers crushed and stagnated the progress of Negro life, the economist Sadie Mossell wrote, early in the migration to Philadelphia.

LEWIS: And so that's, for me, a sort of embarrassing economic argument to make, right? Like, I was slightly shocked, a little horrified. Like, oh, my God, my grandmother with her wacky thinking. I hope we never have to talk about this.

BERAS: Because that was all Nicole really knew about her great-grandmother's economic thought - until she saw what Nina Banks was doing and she got to see some of Sadie Alexander's other work that Nina had been able to piece together.

LEWIS: And now this scholarship really shows that there's just a depth and a breadth and that she was really trying to grapple with the way that Black people were making money and advancing themselves in the United States. And so it's quite a relief for me, was really just happy and sort of glad to see something more complete.

MALONE: More from Nicole as we get into Sadie Alexander's speeches.

BERAS: Now, it's impossible to cover all the things Sadie Alexander was writing about and thinking about and talking about. There are dozens and dozens of speeches that Nina Banks has pieced back together. They span six decades. They were given at the National Bar Association conference, a national Elks conference, an international human rights conference, and they cover a ton of topics.

MALONE: But the first big theme that Nina Banks identified was about Black achievement, which seemed to be in direct response to a troubling belief in eugenics within the United States that was also prevalent within economics at the time.

BANKS: You know, and there were a number of prominent economists in the United States who were members of the American Eugenics Society, some of the founders of the American Economics Association. And so her early speeches focused on the theme of African American accomplishments in the United States. Those speeches are extraordinary.

MALONE: Here's an excerpt from a speech Sadie Alexander gave in 1936, read by Nicole Lewis.

LEWIS: (Reading) When it is realized that we had no inherited wealth and that a Negro must work by the sweat of his brow to accumulate wealth, such accomplishments are worthy achievements. The Negro has undoubtedly contributed more labor in proportion to his numbers to American civilization than any of the other many racial groups that constitute this heterogeneous population. It is difficult to measure his contribution in this field because records are not made of Negroes who build roads, subways, railroads and factories. In the field of agriculture, however...

BERAS: Sadie gave pages and pages of speeches countering the prevailing belief that Black people were inherently inferior.

BANKS: Sadie did not have an engagement with the economics profession. And yet - right? - and yet, much of her economic analysis helped to go against and to dispute some of the thinking that was prevalent among economists at the time.

MALONE: OK, so speech category No. 2 that Nina found - Sadie Alexander spoke frequently about the importance of full employment. This is the term economists use when everyone who wants a job has a job. Sadie even uses this term in the following speech.

LEWIS: (Reading) When labor, white or Black, native or foreign born, understands that full employment means greater purchasing power for all the people, which can be obtained only by giving every man capable of holding a job the right to work, labor will have solved its own problems.

BANKS: She pressed for full employment policies. And my research uncovered that, in fact, it was Sadie Alexander who was the first economist in the country to promote a federal jobs guarantee in 1945.

BERAS: The idea of a jobs guarantee has become a big part of modern political discourse. Sadie Alexander was discussing this 80 years ago and also discussing the shifts in power that come along with full employment - increased bargaining power, decreased wage gaps.

MALONE: It has now been exactly a hundred years since Sadie Alexander received her economics Ph.D. and became the first Black economist. And only now are we finally able to see this, like the economic thinking and work of our first Black economist.

BERAS: And it took Nina Banks decades, basically her entire professional career, to restore all of that thinking. And that was time she wasn't doing other research, years she struggled to get funding and to publish the work she was recovering.

MALONE: But now she is publishing it all at once. She has a new book called "Democracy, Race, And Justice: The Speeches And Writings Of Sadie T. M. Alexander." And when you read these speeches, it's hard not to think what could have been different for economics. These are works of academic rigor that should have been building blocks for the entire profession. But instead, they were, like, spoken to a room full of people and then largely forgotten.

And I think back to the title of the essay that started Nina Banks on her quest in the first place, "Missed "Opportunity." And I asked her, like, what was that missed opportunity? What was lost here?

Do you think if she had been let into the economics profession that the field would be further ahead on this kind of research?

BANKS: No, and that is the question that I - that people ask.

BERAS: And she says no because she thinks the economics profession just wasn't ready to listen to Black scholars at the time.

MALONE: Higher education was still functionally segregated. And if Sadie Alexander had been allowed to be an economics professor, it almost certainly would've been at a historically Black college or university. And the rest of academia, white academia, was not paying attention to what was happening at HBCUs.

BANKS: So in the Black world, yes, it would've made a difference, her presence would've made a difference because she would have mentored a later generation, and she would've influenced the direction of their research. So a Nina Banks would've been enlightened by the thought of Sadie Alexander at an earlier period.

MALONE: As opposed to spending a good chunk of your career recovering the thought of Sadie Alexander.

BANKS: Yeah, this career spent recovering this thought - I wouldn't have had to recover it because it would've been there and I would've benefited from her amazing insights.


MALONE: Do you have a story of economic archaeology digs? Let us know. We're Or on social media, we are @planetmoney.

BERAS: Today's episode was produced by Darius Rafieyan and edited by Brittany Luse. Alex Goldmark is PLANET MONEY's supervising producer.

MALONE: Special thanks this week to the Temple University library, where we got our audio of Sadie Alexander. Also want to say that the essay "Missed Opportunity" was written by the economist Julianne Malveaux. And Nina Banks' research assistant, who, in addition to many, many other things, helped her track down Adam Smith quotes, was Lily Shorney.

BERAS: You can read all the Sadie Alexander speeches we talked about and many, many more in Nina Banks' new book, "Democracy, Race, And Justice: The Speeches And Writing Of Sadie T. M. Alexander" (ph).

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

BERAS: I'm Erika Beras. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sympathy (ph) - (unintelligible).

ALEXANDER: No, not that.


ALEXANDER: No, Vera (ph).


ALEXANDER: I don't know. But anyway, she did do that. Well, I'm sorry, but I am - I didn't realize it's 10 minutes of 4, and I leave at 4 to get ahead of the traffic. I say I leave at 4...


ALEXANDER: ...To get ahead of the traffic.


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