People in Old Town Alexandria held a big celebration Friday for the retirement of the city's first Black judge. After serving on the bench for nearly three decades, Judge Nolan Dawkins hung up his robe.
Well-wishers gathered outside the courthouse and sheriff's deputies led a 60-car parade down Pitt Street to surprise Dawkins as he made his final goodbyes.
Dawkins grew up in the community he served and said he saw the people in his court first as humans.
"I did know that sometimes what you were seeing in court is not in fact the person," Dawkins told News4. "Sometimes we need to see through the law and make the decision based on who the person is."
Even though Dawkins operated that way from the bench, he said he wasn't always treated with the same regard growing up in segregated Alexandria.
He recounted the time a woman called the police on a friend and him playing behind a grocery store when he was a young child.
"They carried a fingerprint kit and at 8 years old I was fingerprinted," Dawkins said. "I wondered all my life, 'Have those fingerprints followed me?'"
Despite the mistreatment he faced, Dawkins broke barriers. He became one of the first students to integrate the former George Washington High School. He was one of five Black students in his graduating class.
"In order to transfer to the all-white school, we had to get an application and essentially prove we could perform in the school system," he said.
That's exactly what Dawkins went on to do. He got an ROTC scholarship in college and then served as an officer in Vietnam. When he returned, he attended law school.
In 1994, he became the first Black judge to serve in Alexandria, starting in juvenile and domestic relations court. Dawkins said it's "one court where you can make a difference."
Dawkins created one of the first family drug treatment courts, giving addicted parents who had their children taken away a second chance. He says it’s not uncommon now for people to come up to him in the grocery store to say thank you.
For the past 13 years, Dawkins has worked on civil cases in circuit court. Regardless of the type of work, Dawkins said his guiding principle as a judge has been simple.
"I don’t come to court as a judge. I come to court and I see people," he said.