Bertha P. Whedbee (1876-1960), community activist and first Louisville African American woman police officer
This biosketch was written by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Louisville. For her full project on “African American Women and Suffrage in Louisville,” visit https://arcg.is/1O8muW.
Bertha Par Simmons was born In West Virginia to Robert and Elizabeth Simmons. According to the 1880 census, her father was a laborer and could read and write; Elizabeth Simmons could not. The Simmons couple had two daughters and an adopted son. By at least the mid-nineties, Bertha had moved to Louisville, where she married Ellis. D. Whedbee, a physician, in 1898. Her mother, Lizzie Simmons, signed the marriage certificate, which suggests Bertha’s father had died because, traditionally, the father would have taken that role.
Ellis Whedbee, born in 1863, came from an enslaved background. His parents were farmers in North Carolina. Ellis’s brother became an attorney and remained in North Carolina. Ellis graduated from Fisk University with a medical degree. He was one of the founders of Louisville’s Red Cross Hospital.
In 1901, Bertha Whedbee became one of five graduates from the first training class of the Colored Kindergarten Association, an auxiliary to the Louisville Free Kindergarten Association. Georgia Nugent and other leaders, concerned to have African American children taught by African Americans, initiated the effort. Whedbee would have had the same concern. She graduated with five other women.
Bertha Whedbee became active in many local causes. During WWI, she led girls at the Phillis Wheatley School Patriotic League in such activities as growing food and sewing warm comforts for soldiers. She served on the Phillis Wheatley YWCA Board. She was a longtime contributor to the Urban League, serving on its nominating committee and honored in 1959 for twenty-five-years-service. She was an original member of the Red Cross Association, an effort “to equip and maintain a sanitarium for the purpose of treating the sick of the race under the observation of their own people and to operate in connection with such an institution a training school where women of the race can be educated as professional nurses.” The result of that effort, The Red Cross Hospital (not associated with the American Red Cross), allowed African Americans to be treated by African Americans, as Black doctors and nurses were not allowed to practice in the city’s other hospitals. She remained intimately involved with the hospital, helping to train nurses and serving as chair of the Women’s Board of Managers after the death of its original chair, Lizzie Bates. Whedbee served as chair of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Red Cross Hospital, was an officer in the Ladies Medical Aid, President of the Bluegrass State Medical Society, and served on the program committee of the National Medical and Dental Association.
Bertha Whedbee was no shrinking violet. In 1919, her 17-year-old son, Ellis, was arrested by police after being stopped on suspicion of robbery, likely unfairly as he was a respected model student. He was charged with disorderly conduct for trying to strike a police officer and was fined $10. Bertha Whedbee entered the police station and, according to a newspaper report, threatened to kill the station master. She was given a $10 suspended fine. Two days later, she and her husband filed suit against the station master. Three years later, Bertha Whedbee became Louisville’s first African American policewoman, hired “for providing a protective worker for the colored women and girls” but to work “strictly among girls and women of her own race.” One letter of recommendation from Mrs. J. B. (Virginia) Speed demonstrates Whedbee’s status in the community as well as the cooperative work among some Black and white women. Speed wrote,
I take pleasure in recommending Mrs. Bertha Whedbee for any position requiring faithful work, honesty, and industry. My acquaintance with her is of about fifteen years, and I have never known her to fail in any duty assigned her.
In 1922 Bertha Whedbee testified in the trial of a white man accused of raping a five-year-old Black child. The man was kept in jail for three weeks, indicating the amount of evidence against him. Whedbee and others, including the examining physician and eye witnesses who saw the man leaving the girl’s bedroom, testified against the suspect. Still, the grand jury released the suspect, the Leader suggesting that the results would have been much different had the child been white. In July 1927, Whedbee resigned from the police department in protest, and perhaps expecting to be dismissed, after the only two male African American officers in the department were dismissed following a Democratic takeover of the city’s elective offices. The African Americans had been hired under Republican administrations.
In 1938, when the Louisville Police Department dismissed four policewomen in favor of hiring patrolmen, the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Taxpayer’s League held a session at the Seelbach Hotel, questioning “Why Louisville should have policewomen?” Former police officer Bertha Whedbee and the four dismissed policewomen (two Black, two white) spoke to the February 25th meeting, after which The Taxpayer’s League recommended rehiring the policewomen, but the chief resisted, refusing to rehire them.
The Whedbees had four children, three of whom survived to adulthood. Roberta became employed at the Phillis Wheatley YWCA and became active in many of the organizations her mother had promoted. She died at a relatively young age, preceding her parents in death. Ellis and Melville, their sons, were well-known in Louisville, partly because of their participation in sports. Mel was a star high school quarterback at Central High School; he later taught and coached at the Y.M.C.A. and Kentucky State University. Ellis was widely admired for the winning track team he coached at Male High School.
Bertha Whedbee is buried in the Louisville Cemetery, alongside her husband Ellis. In 2018, the Jefferson County Police Department honored her with a gravestone. Her grave had been unmarked.
- Bertha Whedbee personnel file, Louisville Police Department, Jefferson County Archives.
- Indianapolis Ledger: 13 April 1918.
- (Louisville) Courier-Journal: 19 June 1901; 10 May 1919; 21 May 1919; 25 February 1938; 8 February 1942; 24 April 1959.
- Louisville Leader: 10 November 1917; 27 August 1921; 3 December 1921; 21 January 1922; 4 February 1922; 25 March 1922; 13 May 1922; 20 June 1922; 29 July 1922; 28 October 1922; 25 November 1922; 2 December 1922; 26 My 1923; 15 September 1923; 6 October 1923; 28 July 1924; 23 July 1927; 1 December 1928; 24 May 1930; 5 September 1931; 16 September 1933; 18 November 1933; 10 March 1934; 13 October 1934;16 February 1935; 13 May 1939; 3 January 1942; 10 August 1946.
- Shawn Herron, “Paving a Way,” Kentucky Law Enforcement (20 June 2019) https://www.klemagazine.com/blog/2019/6/19/paving-a-way
- U. S. Census: 1870-1880. 1900-1940.
- Bertha Whedbee
- Louisville KY
- Jefferson County KY
- Louisville Cemetery
- Louisville Free Kindergarten Association
- World War I
- Louisville Urban League
- Red Cross Hospital
- Lizzie Green Bates
- Bluegrass State Medical Society
- National Medical and Dental Association
- police corruption
- Taxpayer's League
- Jefferson County Police Department
- black clubwomen
- Kentucky African American women
- black women's labor