Paving a Way
Sometimes, a simple conversation can lead to a wonderful ending.
In 2016, several active and retired members of the Louisville Metro Police Department happened upon a Kentucky Cop Stories blog entry entitled, “Louisville’s First ‘Lady Cops.’” The story detailed how, just two years after the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, Alice Dunlap and Bertha Par Whedbee became Louisville’s first female law enforcement officers.
Each was a first in their own way. Dunlap became the first woman to join the Louisville Police Department, and notably, Whedbee was appointed as the first African-American policewoman for the same department.
As was detailed in the blog entry, Whedbee was born in 1879 in West Virginia. By 1900, she and her husband, Dr. Ellis D. Whedbee, a well-known local physician, were living in Louisville. Whedbee first appeared in The Courier-Journal in 1901, as part of a group of African-American women who were qualified to teach kindergarten classes.
Dunlap and Whedbee were restricted to “patrolling dance halls, apprehending thieves in downtown department stores, working with children and performing female body searches." Each was also limited to working with members of their own race. News articles later suggested that the two women worked well together and even attended a conference in Washington, D.C. together.
As was the custom at the time, when the mayoral administration changed in Louisville, many officers left the police force, and Whedbee did so in 1927.
Later administrations decided that women were not needed as officers, and in 1938 the four women working for the department at the time were fired. Louisville would not have female officers again until the 1950s.
At the end of the story, it was mentioned that Whedbee and her husband lay in unmarked graves in Louisville Cemetery.
This sparked the officers’ interest, who decided that Whedbee and her husband deserved properly marked gravesites. Officers set out on a quest to raise money for a suitable marker and were part of a newly established board of directors. A GoFundMe was set up and shared across social media networks, such as the law enforcement topics Facebook page, “What’s Your 20?’
The tagline of a “little bit of money from a whole lotta cops” engaged the interest of law enforcement officers nationwide. A trickle of small donations became a flood, almost all from individuals.
By the summer of 2018, the memorial fund held enough money to purchase the stone.
On Nov. 13, 2018, the dream was realized. The stone was unveiled to a mournful dirge by the Louisville Police Pipes & Drums, and honors were presented by the Louisville Metro Police Honor Guard. Chief Steve Conrad and members of the Louisville police command staff participated, along with Metro Council member Cheri Bryant Hamilton, whose father, Dr. Roscoe C. Bryant, Jr., worked at the Red Cross Hospital founded by Whedbee’s husband and other physicians. Rev. Dr. Alex Moses Sr., the longtime pastor of the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Louisville, gave an address on Officer Whedbee’s commitment and courage in taking on the role and recognized the service given by modern-day peace officers.
If you find yourself in Louisville one day, pay a visit to the gravesite in Louisville Cemetery, 1339 Poplar Level Road. The site is easy to find. Upon entering the cemetery gates, make a right turn. There, one can see a small, stone structure. Just beyond, the Whedbee stone sits on a slight rise, on the right side of the road. When you stop by, take a moment to offer some thoughts for a woman who indeed was a trailblazer in Kentucky law enforcement history.