Black History Month: Honoring the Legal Giants of Philadelphia

In the city known for the quality of its lawyers for over 250 years, and in honor of Black History Month, we celebrate the contributions of outstanding Black Philadelphia lawyers, including Raymond Pace Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Cecil B. Moore, J. Austin Norris and A. Leon Higginbotham. Their contributions on both the local and national stages helped break barriers for equality and add to the legal prominence of the city of Philadelphia.

We invite you to learn more about each of these legal giants below.

Raymond Pace Alexander (1897 – 1974)

Alexander became the first Black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (1920). He then enrolled at Harvard Law School while not only working on a master’s degree in Political Science at Columbia University but also working as a railway porter. He was a City Council member representing the Fifth District and became the first Black judge to sit on the Court of Common Pleas. Read more about this legal giant.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898 – 1989)

Mossell Alexander became the first Black woman in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in economics, and the second to earn a Ph.D. in any field of study (1921). In 1924, she became the first Black woman to enroll in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Law, where her father Aaron Albert Mossell had been the first Black person to graduate. In 1927, she became the first Black woman to earn a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, pass the bar and practice law in Pennsylvania. Read more about this legal giant.

Cecil B. Moore (1915 – 1979)

Moore was a prominent Philadelphia defense attorney and civil rights leader. He attended Temple University Beasley School of Law after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. Moore was a champion of integrating schools, most notably leading the desegregation of Girard College. He also served on the Philadelphia City Council from 1976 – 1979. Read more about this legal giant.

J. Austin Norris (1893 – 1976)

Norris was a founder of the law firm of Norris, Schmidt, Green, Harris & Higginbotham, which is one of the oldest Black law firms in the country. It was also the first Black law firm in Philadelphia. He was a prominent lawyer in the city who used political power to advance the status of Black lawyers with the expectation that those lawyers would bring about further social change. Norris was the leader of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, the first Black member of the Board of Revision of Taxes and the editorial voice of several Black newspapers. Read more about this legal giant.

Leon Higginbotham (1928 – 1998)

Along with J. Austin Norris, Higginbotham was a founding partner of the first Black law firm in Philadelphia, Norris, Schmidt, Green, Harris & Higginbotham. He became the first Black judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and went on to serve as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. President Bill Clinton awarded Higginbotham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Read more about this legal giant.

Authors Steve Bertil and Michael Coran are members of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at Klehr Harrison which strives to advance diversity, equity and inclusion through education in all forms from educating our own lawyers and clients, hiring and mentoring minority lawyers and providing tools to educate students of all ages.