Alice J. Palmer was born on June 20, 1939, in Indianapolis, Indiana. The daughter of Erskine and Mary Ward Roberts, Palmer graduated from high school at age sixteen and enrolled at Indiana University. After an extended leave of absence, Palmer returned to Indiana University to earn her Bachelors degree with the help of four jobs and a scholarship.
After graduating in 1965, Palmer found a teaching position in Indianapolis, Indiana, but soon moved to Chicago to work at Crane Junior College, later called Malcolm X College. She received her Masters degree from Roosevelt University and her Ph.D. from Northwestern University, where she co-authored two books and tutored in the Black House. Palmer remained at Northwestern University to serve as Associate Dean and Director of African American Student Affairs for the next five years. Palmer served as the National Voter Education Director for a national citizen action organization before becoming the founding director of the Metro YMCA Youth and Government Program in 1986. She also served as Executive Director of Chicago Cities in Schools.
On June 6, 1991, Palmer replaced Richard Newhouse in the Illinois Senate, where she served until 1996. While in office, Palmer served on the Appropriations II Committee, among many others. Palmer was replaced by Barack Obama in the state senate. In 1996, Palmer was hired by the University of Illinois at Chicago as an Associate Professor in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.
Palmer was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 9, 2000.