James Dixon joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1954 as a black officer in an era of widespread racial prejudice. Police posts were segregated and blacks were not allowed in patrol cars

On Tuesday, a quarter-century after he retired as a sergeant, Dixon returned to the department for a ceremony to honor his service and thank him for his role in helping the department through a time of social change. Dixon, 77, was given a BPD hat and coffee mug.

"I think today was really good for him because I don't think he realized how far the Police Department has come," said Derrick Dixon, James' son. "So for him to come out here and see a lot of Afro-American officers and commissioners, I think it blew his mind.

"I think now he realizes a lot of the things he did for the Police Department and a lot of first-time things he did for blacks and realizes what it led to," Derrick Dixon said.

The segregation in the police wasn't anything new for James Dixon, after his service in the military.

He was one of hundreds of Marines from Montford Point, an all-black boot camp in North Carolina, to receive a Congressional Gold Medal last month.

"This was something I never expected, although the Tuskegee Airmen got theirs, so we shouldn't have been very far behind them," James Dixon said. "This is something I will cherish for the few days I have left in my life. But this is something I'm going to have framed and hung on the wall."

Dixon served in the Marines from 1944 until 1946, but his placement there was itself a stroke of luck. Drafted by the Navy, Dixon was willing to go to prison rather than join a unit where he was forced to serve food or swab decks like other blacks who were in the Navy during that era.

"I [said] that if I was put in the Navy, I was going AWOL because I wasn't going to serve any food or scrub any decks," Dixon said, teary-eyed. "Had I been put in the Navy, I would be in jail now. I'm not a servant."

Much has changed since then, but the department has not forgotten Dixon's contributions, said Acting Commissioner Anthony E. Barksdale.

"He's stood strong through all of it. And look at him. Still shining; still standing strong," said Barksdale. "He's giving me advice and telling me stories that are making me happy that I'm wearing the same uniform that he used to wear."

ncafferky@baltsun.com