Current LMPD officers reflect on African American trailblazer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Only a pink flag once marked the resting place of one of Louisville’s heroes.
Bertha Whedbee, the first African American female officer in the city, continues to inspire others 101 years later.
“When you think about it, it just, it really hurts to think about all the things that she went through,” LMPD Officer Kyle Willis told WAVE News. “But how strong, you also think how strong was she to go through all that and still go out in the community and enforce the law.”
Willis works in the traffic unit and thought of being an officer since he was little. It was a decision that he would later think about long and hard.
“Especially in this climate now, I guess it’s a little unpopular I’d say to be a police officer,” he said. “Especially as being a young, Black male, you kind of see yourself facing two sides.”
The complexities didn’t hinder Willis’s resolve, but rather motivated him.
“I see things that some police officers are doing, maybe I don’t like those, maybe I can make a change in that,” Willis said. “That’s why I joined the police department.”
“I do love this city, I love it,” he added.
Wanting to bring change from inside out was also Whedbee’s driving factor after her son was treated badly by police, according to the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.
Whedbee would have to fight for the badge, making a petition to join not just as the first African American, but also as the first woman.
Her Oath of Office contains a pen’s scratch mark over the word “policeman” with the word “woman” added by hand.
“Where she was the first one, there was somebody else who said hey, if she can do it, I can do it,” LMPD officer Beverly Jones said.
Jones works in the department’s Downtown Area Patrol, or DAP. She’s been with LMPD for 20 years.
Jones shares more with Bertha Whedbee than she even knew. Jones was officially the first Black, female officer on the newly formed LMPD in 2003, right after the county and city departments merged as one.
“How does that make you feel?” she was asked.
“Old,” Jones laughed. “A little seasoned, I take that back.”
Wearing a badge hasn’t been easy, especially during the times when pain was palpable throughout the city.
“I’ve seen my share of... things,” Jones said. “I’ve went from one part of the wheel to, you know, the other.”
Jones, just as Whedbee, uses those feelings as fuel and leading a younger generation of officers by example.
She created a closet at the patrol division. Anyone in need of clothing or shoes can stop by and pick items up.
“They night think I’m crazy,” Jones said. “But hey, it’s like, I took a pair of pants yesterday, or I took a shirt yesterday, or gave away two blankets yesterday, so that makes me feel good.”
“We just had a young lady come in this morning, and she was walking and she knows, she stopped by, knocked and said, I need a coat. She came in, picked a coat out, and she was just happy, and she walked down the sidewalk,” she said with a smile.
“Police work in general is not, chasing a bad guy, or getting a stolen car,” she explained. “It’s helping the community. It’s being a positive part of it.”
Whedbee continued to serve, even though she was restricted to Black neighborhoods and in the midst of a segregated America.
“I can only imagine,” LMPD Sgt. Gerald Tyson said. “I mean, not only are you an African American, but you’re an African American woman in a predominantly masculine job environment, so that’s a triple-edged sword.”
Sgt. Gerald Tyson, works the late watch in the second division and has been with LMPD since 2007.
He is a third-generation officer who served in the Army too. His father, a combat Vietnam veteran who also wore a police badge proudly.
Tyson’s father was his hero.
“Probably, the first or second time I saw my dad in his police uniform, it was a done deal for me then,” Tyson recalled. “It was something he actually wanted me not to do. It was, I did all those things so you didn’t have to do them.”
His dad, was his role model, unwavering in his sense of service despite a time when racism was rampant.
One of his father’s favorite pictures was with Civil Rights legend, Rosa Parks.
Decades later, Tyson’s father’s lessons are even more important.
“It’s about giving respect,” Tyson explained. “You have to be able to give, if you want to receive in every facet, but in this profession you have to be able to respect what you’re walking into, who you are walking up on, and then at the end of the day, you want to be respected when you walk away.”
Today, thanks to a group of Black and white officers, spearheaded by the now retired Chuck Cooper, Whedbee’s grave is no longer marked by a pink flag.
Her final resting place, finally getting the respect she deserves for her bravery and for being a bastion against discrimination, and an inspiration to an entire department and those to come.
“I have two daughters as well,” Willis said. “They may not want to be police officers but showing them that someone had enough strength to do it in that time period, they can have the strength to do it in any time period or in any challenges they may go through in their life.”
To learn more about Whedbee, visit the Louisville Metropolitan Public Safety Museum website.
To learn more about becoming an LMPD Officer, click or tap here.
Copyright 2023 WAVE. All rights reserved.