Raymond Pace Alexander — The legacy of the first black judge in Philadelphia
Throughout Philadelphia’s history, there have been many significant African American attorneys; however, most black attorneys, such as Raymond Pace Alexander, were in the shadows of white attorneys during the early Civil Rights era. Pace was born on October 13, 1898 in Philadelphia. During the early years of his life, he lived with his family at 534 South 24th Street. Unfortunately, Alexander’s mother died on June 17, 1903, from pneumonia after giving birth to his youngest brother Schollie. Shortly after the death of his mother, Alexander’s father decided to send all five of his children, including Alexander, to live with their maternal aunt in Northern Philadelphia. As a young boy, he was determined to help support his family. His first job was unloading fish at the local docks in Philadelphia and also selling newspapers.
Alexander, as a student at Central High School in Philadelphia, was elected as the first African American editor for the newspaper, The Mirror. By Alexander’s sophomore year, however, he was contemplating dropping out of school. His minister E.W. Moore helped Alexander to understand that he should never feel inferior to white society, which motivated Alexander to finish high school and apply to college. He was presented with a four-year scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he enrolled in Wharton. In January, 1920, Alexander became co-founder of the Psi Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity African American chapter.
Upon graduation, Alexander decided to apply to Harvard Law School in hopes of becoming a successful black lawyer to erase the color line and fight for civil rights. While attending Harvard, Alexander organized the “Nile Club” to campaign against the university’s discrimination policy. After Alexander graduated from law school, he took the Pennsylvania Bar examination and passed with flying colors on his first try. During the late 1920s and late 1930s, Alexander was one of thirteen black attorneys practicing law in Philadelphia.
Alexander represented many desegregation cases as well as criminal cases, but the two of the most significant cases with which he was involved were the Chester County school district desegregation case and the “Trenton Six” case. In 1933, black parents from Chester County came to Alexander for legal assistance to fight against school segregation. The school district decided to build a new elementary school, but keep the old Easttown elementary school open “for the instruction of certain people” which meant “for colored students.” He won the case which ended de jure segregated schools in Pennsylvania. Alexander’s victory impressed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF) who then hired him to defend two defendants in the Trenton Six case. Alexander’s strategy was to argue each of his defendants’ “alleged confession was beyond his educational level,” clearing his defendants murdering a white store clerk. In 1951, Alexander was elected City Councilman and held his position for eight years. As a councilman, he attempted unsuccessfully to desegregate Girard College. Nevertheless, in 1959, Alexander had successfully accomplished his lifelong goal to become the first black judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. He was committed to use the law and his judicial status to obtain civil rights for the African American community, as well as improve race relations.
By the 1960s, a new wave of civil rights leaders came onto the battle field and demanded for greater progress on civil rights. Leaders such as Cecil B. Moore believed in radical militant tactics to fight for civil rights and social equality. Alexander believed that Cecil B. Moore militant tactics aroused the masses to act destructively. Moore’s street protests and confrontational language, offered a marked contrast to Alexander’s legislative approach to civil rights. Even though their civil rights tactics were on opposite sides of the spectrum, the men shared one common goal: to desegregate Girard College and Philadelphia’s public school system. They put their differences aside for the greater progress to desegregate the school. The combination of Alexander battling desegregation of Girard College in the courts and Moore’s militant style brought the battle to the streets demanded more immediate and radical outcomes. On May 20, 1968, the fifteen-year battle to desegregate Girard College finally can to a close when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling, thus paving the way for integration.
The efforts of Alexander, as well as other African American attorneys, to seek redress within the legislative and judicial arenas increasingly gave way to civil disobedience and protest, a shift as discernible in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago as well as in Selma and Montgomery. Alexander’s legacy was the combination of racial consciousness and the law to create a template for obtaining black equality and eradicate racism.
- Canton, David A. Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2010.
- Glasker, Wayne. Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania, 1967-1990. University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, 2002.
534 South 24th Street