Coffee With Judge Nolan Dawkins
A life-long Alexandrian reflects on the city and its people and his career as a lawyer and judge.
Judge Nolan Dawkins is a life-long Alexandrian, a rare distinction. Even rarer, he has lived in the same house since he was 9 years old.
Dawkins, a father of three daughters, has four grandchildren. He was an Alexandria judge for 27 years. His perspective on the city was formed by growing up in a segregated city, college at Central State University in Ohio and law school at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, service in the Army in Vietnam, and returning to make a lifelong commitment to the Alexandria community.
He said, “This was a small town, and I would say a small southern town, and we have evolved into something more than that. I think this is a place where people want to come and want to live. This is a place that I made a choice to come back to. I’ve set my roots—my daughters grew up here and we have fond memories.”
“The city is now inclusive. This is truly not the South as people think of it in terms of people’s relationships,” Dawkins said. “We’re still in the South, but I think we’re reminded of it less here, perhaps than in other parts of the state.”
Dawkins’ recollections go a long way back. He has clear and fond memories of his third grade teacher, Ms. Evelyn Johnson, who he said “would not let this third grader get away with things he shouldn’t. I’ve always attributed Ms. Johnson to where I ultimately wound up.”
After his 10th grade year, Dawkins approached the School Board for permission to transfer from the segregated Parker-Gray High School to George Washington High School. He said “It was something I wanted to do.”
His 1965 graduating class at George Washington included four other African-Americans. He described the marked contrast between the two high schools: “There was such a difference in terms of services, in terms of physical facilities—I saw a major difference. On the other hand, Parker-Gray, which was two blocks from here, offered a great experience in terms of family and caring and education. Teachers were as much a part of your family as they were of theirs.”
Dawkins left Parker-Gray, but not his Parker-Gray friends, whom he sees regularly for lunch. He said, “I think they would all say that growing up here was an experience that was not harmful to them. It’s been a good run for all of us. We get together perhaps once a month. I love those guys—that group of students from Parker-Gray all had great [success] in their careers.”
At George Washington his friends included John Porter, later the Principal of what is now Alexandria City High School.
Basketball did not play a role in his decision to transfer from Parker-Gray to the marginally integrated George Washington. He said, “I was the most average ballplayer you’ve ever met in your life, but I was playing alongside Skeeter Swift.” Swift, a local basketball legend who Dawkins compared to Pete Maravich as a flashy player, went on to a storied college career at East Tennessee State University. Swift was drafted in 1969 by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 30th selection. He played for several American Basketball Association teams.
“Skeeter and I became lifelong friends,” he said. “Every time Skeeter came to town, I got a knock on the door.” He said that Parker-Gray basketball players such as Sam Butler and others, “would have been just as successful as Skeeter, but he had a different avenue.” The circumstances of that era make the accomplishments of Parker-Gray graduate Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in the NBA and later an NBA coach, even more impressive.
George Washington, a basketball power during Dawkins’ time went to the state tournament in Richmond twice. He said, “We had to stay in a hotel [in Richmond] that would allow me and there weren’t very many [hotels] that would allow me to stay.”
Dawkins returned to Alexandria after serving in the Army in Vietnam as a convoy commander. He said, “I came back as a professional with experiences of many different kinds. When I came back the city had changed. I’ve always had some appreciation for how the city has evolved.”
He described the extensive construction in his neighborhood as a “new world” and recalls that walking north on Fayette Street there was a swamp he had to walk through to get to what was then the Johnson Memorial Pool, which opened in 1952 after two brothers, ages 9 and 11, drowned while swimming in the Potomac River. Prior to the opening of Johnson Memorial Pool, the river and Hunting Creek were the only places to swim for Alexandria’s people of color.
Dawkins, in thinking about past leaders of Alexandria’s communities of color, identified Melvin Miller, Helen Day and Ferdinand Day whom he said was exceptional, “in his approach to making people of color a part of the community.” Dawkins also cited the Departmental Progressive Club which was organized in 1927 to, in the words of the club’s website, “provide wholesome recreation for its membership and to support other community groups concerned with improving the general welfare of Alexandria.” He said, “That group of men was very unique in terms of the kind of things they were doing at that time. They said, ‘OK, if you don’t want me in your club, we’ll create our own and we’ll socialize with people who think we are equal to them.”
Of his legal career as a lawyer in private practice, a lawyer in the public sector and a judge he said, “Each was interesting and each was challenging. I met some great people during the course of my time.” Since his retirement two years ago which featured a 100-car parade past the Alexandria Court House he has maintained a warm relationship with other Alexandria judges and he stays in close touch with them.
Dawkins’ message to Alexandria’s young people is, “Hope. In a single word: hope. We have to hope that there will be a better world that people can live with each other and understand that there are going to be differences but know that those differences shouldn’t define you. Those differences should be something you can build on. You have the ability to create your own dynamic as to who you are and what you want to be.”