The year was 1977. John Harrington was a rookie St. Paul cop, the intersection of Selby and Dale was a dangerous place and veteran officer Jim Mann was a "character who had character."

A nervous Harrington was responding to a disturbance at a pool hall when Mann swooped in to help.

"I remember Jimmy coming out ... this was when St. Paul cops could carry whatever gun they wanted, and Jimmy had a nickel-plated shotgun," recalled Harrington, who went on to become the city's police chief. "I remember seeing this ... and thinking, 'Oh my God.' Everybody [at the disturbance] left when Jimmy got out of the car."

That's the type of no-nonsense ethic Mann wielded all of his life as a pioneering black cop and community leader who fought against injustice, said friends and family members Monday.

Mann, 88, died of congestive heart failure Saturday morning in his St. Paul home.

"He died peacefully," said his wife, Anna Marie Ettel. (Knowing his health was in decline, the two married on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year after 40 years together.)

James Oliver Mann was born in Brownsville, Tenn., served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945 in Trinidad and attended Tennessee State and Wagner Lutheran College in New York City.

He moved to Minnesota with his first wife, the late Thelma Mann, to attend the University of Minnesota's School of Mortuary Science, but dropped out after a year to work at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant.

Mann joined the St. Paul police in 1957 as a patrolman and retired as an officer in 1977. He spoke out about racial tensions between the black community and the department, as well as within the ranks.

He was one of four black cops in 1970 when James Sackett, a white officer, was killed by a sniper who apparently hoped to impress the Black Panthers. Racial tensions were high, fueled also by the exoneration of a white officer who had killed a young black man.

Mann bucked the system, challenging the status quo and stepping in to calm tensions between the black community and officers, Ettel said.

It wasn't easy, said Harrington, who is also black, because black cops were often considered traitors by many in the black community.

"The white cops didn't trust him and the black community didn't trust him," Ettel said. "It was a challenge, but he knew who he was."

"He was creating a pathway where we could all prosper," said Harrington, who retired as chief last year.

Mann organized a conference in the early 1970s, bringing minority cops from across the country to St. Paul to discuss discrimination in the workplace.

Mann also was active in several community groups and helped obtain a federal grant for the Model Cities program in the 1960s, traveling to Washington D.C. with then-Mayor Thomas Byrne to plead their case.

"Jim was very aggressive," said Ora Lee Patterson, a St. Paul community activist.

The local NAACP recognized him in 2006 for a lifetime of community service. In 2009, St. Paul police awarded him the Medal of Valor for negotiating the safe release in 1971 of a woman and her 18-month-old granddaughter, who were being held hostage in their home by an armed bank robber.

An unarmed Mann negotiated with the suspect for four hours.

Mann is also survived by his six children, 20 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at O'Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home, 575 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.

Funeral services are Saturday, 11 a.m. at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal in St. Paul.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib