By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
3:33 PM EST, November 10, 2012
John Ellis "Bo" Blackwell, one of the first African-Americans to be appointed to the Baltimore Police Department, who overcame racism and enjoyed a 30-year career with the department, died Oct. 30 of respiratory failure at Sinai Hospital.
The Ellicott City resident was 83.
"John was a pioneering African-American officer and he kept us focused. We stand on his shoulders," said Edward V. Woods, who served as police commissioner from 1989 to 1993.
"Thank God for people like John who always gave his all. We are a better community for it and the department is now a healthy and representative mixture of people," said Mr. Woods. "It is now representative of all the people, and in the old days, it wasn't that way."
The eldest of five children, John Ellis Blackwell was born to Gladys Blackwell Gray in St. Michaels. He spent his early childhood on the Eastern Shore before moving to Baltimore, where he attended city public schools.
In 1947, Mr. Blackwell, who had dropped out of school, joined the Marine Corps. He served for several years before taking a job at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point shipyard.
While working at the shipyard, Mr. Blackwell and several friends decided on a whim to take the written examination for the Baltimore Police Department. Of that group, he was the only one selected to become an officer on Sept. 13, 1950.
By 1950, there were only six black police officers on the force — the first three having been appointed in 1938 — who were kept in plainclothes for five years to "investigate Negro vice," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 1969 article. The article also observed that African-American officers weren't "particularly popular in their old neighborhoods."
"We could only work in black communities and couldn't drive police cars. White people wouldn't let black officers arrest them, even though we had full police powers," recalled Mr. Woods. "We were excluded to one area of the city."
But Mr. Blackwell and his fellow African-American officers soldiered on, working to prove themselves in order to get ahead while enduring station house jokes laced with racial overtones and racial epithets.
Integrated patrol cars didn't arrive until the mid-1960s, and it took a picket line of black officers in 1963 at City Hall and police headquarters to integrate previously all-white units such as the crime lab and K-9 Corps.
"I first met John in 1959, who was a patrolman in the Central District," recalled Mr. Woods.
"In those early days, John helped keep me focused. He kept saying, 'You have a place here and you'll be a good law officer.' He gave me a certain stick-to-it-iveness," said Mr. Woods. "He was an inspiration in those really very stressful times. He'd also say, 'Be proud of what you're doing.'"
Mr. Blackwell later became an administrative assistant, Mr. Woods said, to Maj. Clarence Roy in the department's community relations division.
He retired in 1980.
"While serving as a police officer, he obtained his GED and received an associate's degree in 1971, graduating on the same exact day his daughter received her bachelor's degree in Washington from George Washington University," said a granddaughter, Candace N. White, a lawyer who lives in Manhattan, Kan.
Mr. Woods said that he and Mr. Blackwell lived several blocks away from each other. "John and his family were like a second family to me. He was a great joy," he said.
Mr. Blackwell had lived in Walbrook Junction, Pimlico and Pikesville before moving to Palm Coast, Fla., with his wife, the former Geraldine Cordelia "Gerri" Taylor, whom he married in 1949.
In addition to being an all-around handyman who liked home improvement projects, Mr. Blackwell was an avid fisherman.
He and his wife also enjoyed boating and for more than 30 years lived several months of the year aboard the Gerri-Jac, their 46-foot houseboat moored at the Baltimore Yacht Basin on Insulator Drive and at the Crescent Marina in Fells Point.
Mr. Blackwell was a founder in 1975 and later served as commodore of the Dolphin Cruising Club, Baltimore's only black yacht club, which was part of the Federation of Black Boaters based in Jamaica, N.Y.
In 1978, the couple were instrumental in the chartering of Flotilla 19 of the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Baltimore. He was the flotilla's first commander and attained Coast Guard Auxiliary retired status.
Mr. Blackwell also liked to take cruises and traveled by steamship to Bermuda and the Caribbean.
"Bo could sometimes seem quiet and reflective, but he was always up for a good time and enjoyed life with gusto," his granddaughter said. "He was never one to hold back an opinion and advice or turn down an offer of crabs and a cold beer."
His wife of 54 years died in 2003, and in recent years, he lived with his daughter in Ellicott City.
"He lived an amazing life. He was born of a young mother, raised in a rural community by his grandparents, and against all odds, became a public servant, earned a college degree, traveled all over the world and lived to know his great-grandchildren," said his daughter, Dr. Jacalyn Blackwell-White, a pediatrician.
Mr. Blackwell was a member of Palm Coast United Methodist Church in Florida.
He was also a member of St. John Baptist Church, 9055 Tamar Drive, Columbia, where services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
In addition to his daughter and granddaughter, Mr. Blackwell is survived by two brothers, Charles Gray and Joseph Gray, both of Baltimore; another granddaughter; and three great-grandchildren.
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