Election of Dixon signaled change in black voter strength; Recalling Black History

BALTIMORE is dotted with buildings, statues and street signs dedicated to the memory of noted civic leaders, black and white. But one important African-American leader has received little such attention: Walter Thomas Dixon Sr.

Dixon -- an educator, entrepreneur, politician and social activist -- started fighting for equality for African-Americans in Baltimore after moving here in 1934.


The son of a lawyer, Dixon was born in Columbia, S.C., in 1893, but was raised in Williamstown, Mass.

His educational background is impressive even today: He held bachelor's and master's degrees from Howard University and studied law at American University.


At various times, he taught in the Washington and Baltimore public schools, at North Carolina Central University in Durham and at Howard University.

Shortly after arriving in Baltimore, Dixon helped to found the Cortez W. Peters Business School, which trained scores of African-Americans in office skills during the 39 years that he served as dean.

In 1955, the well-known Democratic Party boss Jack Pollack picked Dixon to run for City Council from West Baltimore's Fourth District, where he would serve for the next 12 years.

Dixon's election was significant because he was the first black council member in a generation. Six black Republicans had served on the council between 1890 and 1931; that was when most black voters were members of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

The Depression resulted in a Democratic sweep, defeating the last two black Republicans, Warner T. McGuinn and Walter S. Emerson. Their former Fourth District was taken over by the Democratic machine.

Aware of the growing black voter strength by 1955 -- with Republican Harry A. Cole's election as the first African-American state senator the previous year -- Pollack's Democratic machine sought a black candidate.

As a councilman, Dixon pursued better opportunity for African-Americans through legislation addressing employment discrimination, equality in public accommodations and the desegregation of mental institutions.

Dixon, who died in 1980, also worked for the construction of a new building for Provident Hospital (now Liberty Medical Center) -- the black community's hospital.


Dixon's widow, Olivia, to whom he was married for 38 years, still lives in Baltimore.

During Black History Month, as we honor African-Americans of achievement, we should recall men like Dixon.

Philip J. Merrill, a collector of black memorabilia, lectures and writes about African-American history. He is president of Nanny Jack & Co., an organization dedicated to black history education.

Pub Date: 2/22/99