Louise Dunavant: Story of a Memphis Life

LOUISE DUNAVANT From MEMPHIS WOMAN Magazine Sept/ October, 2006

Life had not blessed Louise Dunavant with talent or ability, she thought, as she walked through a cemetery one day in 1962. Yes, a cemetery. And her mood matched her surroundings. The single mother of eleven year-old Jimmy and seven year-old Judy worked as a cashier at the Loews State Theater downtown. Living with her mother she had help with the children and housing costs but that was soon to come to an end. Her mother just announced that she would be moving to Mississippi and selling the house. Dunavant was stuck and praying. “God, if you want me to take care of these kids you have to help me. You know I don’t have any talent,” she said.

Twenty five years later she was at the top of an advertisement as a special guest at the Peabody, billed as “Memphis’ hottest -selling artist” a few months after being recognized at her retirement as a pioneering Memphis policewoman. She had scarcely a dull moment in that quarter century, but lets start at the beginning.

Elise Louise Dunavant was born in Memphis March 2, 1931 and lived in a “shotgun house” she says, at 1159 Walker. “You had to go onto the back porch to get to the bathroom. My mother would heat water on the stove. We would have to take a bath in this big tub,” she says. Her room had a special attribute. “There was a stove in my room and I could lay in bed until it got warm,” she remembers.

“I used to draw a lot and color,” Dunavant remembers “I didn’t have much confidence.” She spent most of her days as an only child, but a stepbrother of hers died at birth. “That’s the only time I saw my step dad cry,” she says.

Just before her graduation in 1949 from Southside High, she got a job at Loews Sate Theater. “We’d get off work and I remember there was an usher with a guitar,” she says. Usher Elvis Presley would move on to other endeavors. Dunavant got her own moment of fame with the release of the movie “Annie Get Your Gun,” A photo shows her out front of the theater in a cowgirl outfit pointing two six shooters in the air to promote the movie. “I think I made about three dollars for that,” she says.

When her mother was moving to Mississippi, Dunavant checked to see if any government money was available to help her raise the children. She could not find any. Her “cemetery” moment was pivotal for her in ways she would only realize years later. “A week later I saw an ad in the paper saying the city was hiring meter maids,” she says. Shortly afterwards she was in her uniform walking a downtown beat.

Sure, it was not a huge paycheck, but better. She spent most of the time downtown ticketing parking violators. About two weeks on the job her life took another change thanks to a shortcut through the lobby of the Peabody.

Artists, mostly displaying abstract paintings hung for sale in the hotel. “How do you get your work here?” she asked artist Jack Sealley who was hanging paintings. Immediately she decided this is something she could do. “I had a clown that I had painted in my kid’s room,” She remembers and decided se would put it up for sale. Early on most of her work were abstracts. “I can get those done in a hurry and they sold,” she says. And she still remembers when her first painting was sold. It was bought by a lumber company for fifty dollars. “Every time I needed money I would sell a painting,” Dunavant says. Later she began painting what she saw.

A 1963 painting shows a teary –eyed lost boy comforted by a police woman who gives him an ice cream cone. The late Elsie Whitten was the model. The officer’s arms reach out and her eyes focus in on the boy showing an instinctive sense for lines and shapes that lead the viewer’s eye. This from an artist who has never taken an art class outside of high school. An article in June of that year in the MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR featured the painting and this artistic police woman.

Things were starting to change in the Memphis Police Department. Some investigations needed women to find out information where a man may not have fit in. “They had come down looking for volunteers in the detective bureau. Captain Hitt said ‘I don’t want any of the married women because I don’t want any husbands mad at me,” she remembers. To avoid all the red tape in getting this woman from this department to handle this case for this length of time, the police came up with a new idea. Why not have female officers? In 1964, Louise Dunavant, badge # 38 became one of the first two female detectives.

It would be years before women patrolling the streets of Memphis would be commonplace. But life of a female detective was not just giving out ice cream and comfort to lost children. She was often assigned to crimes against children and had seen some of the worst of human nature.

“This woman was a prostitute. She had 2 little girls and the guys said ‘when you get such and such age I am gong to break you in.” she recalls. The men denied it “I said ‘what if it’s true?’ I said to them again ‘what if it’s true?’ I went to Juvenile Court and got protective custody for the kids,” she remembers. A search warrant she obtained also revealed the allegations were true.

Medications were being taken who was addicted from a Memphis hospital so she went undercover as a nurse and found the suspect- a drug-addicted nurse. A boy said he was molested by older boys in a housing project. “We went out to where this boy lived and knocked on the door and this woman was being nasty. She then gives me an address and a girl comes to the door and I said ‘we are looking for so and so’ and the woman said ‘they are here siting on the couch.” They told the “two big guys” the allegations. “They said ‘yeah we did that,” They arrested them and took him to headquarters, before women going out and arresting people was commonplace. “I thought the captain was about to have a heart attack,” she says.

There were some lighter moments. A clipping file of newspaper stories shows a 1971 operation where she helped arrest a woman telling fortunes without a fortune teller permit. Complaints came to the police about a man approaching women at a downtown park and saying lewd things to them. Her job was to sit alone on a bench and give a hand signal to the other officers to come in for the arrest. “I had given them a signal saying he had already started talking nasty to me. They were just sitting there and they were laughing,” she says.

Her art was taking shape as well. There were paintings of Jesus, a bull fighter and a little boy in her portfolio. “I painted a mermaid for the Mermaid café’ on Front Street. Of course I have the bubbles in the right places,” she says. One of her early Memphis scenes showed a police car and officers exiting the car on Madison at Danny Thomas. The city skyline in the back foretold the future her paintings would take.

In a November, 1970 ceremony Dunavant and several other female officers were given something they never had – service revolvers. “Right now you can keep them in your purse later on if you want to wear them on your belt we can work something out,” Chief Henry Lux was quoted by the paper saying to the women. In May of 1973 she was promoted to Lieutenant.

She thought her career would come to an end in the long, hot summer of 1978. The police and fire went on strike. Dunavant was working at the old John Gaston Hospital and was not striking. “They said I was to report to headquarters right away,” she remembers. “Deputy Director Holt told me ‘I want you to go out and arrest the strikers.’ I said ‘what’s going on’ and he said ‘do as your ordered’ I got up to the guys and said ‘they sent me out to arrest you’ and they said ‘do your duty, lieutenant’ and I said ‘but I’m not going to,’ and then I started crying. They put their arms around me,” she remembers. Photos of her teary-eyed in her uniform with the strikers went across the wire services.

She had another tense moment in 1983. She spent $3,800 of her own money to make prints of a still life “Spirit of Beale.” “That night I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking ‘what have I done,” she remembers. Three months later she made her money back. It was at the right time, too. Downtown in the 1970’s was looking like a ghost town as businesses and residents left for places like East Memphis, Raleigh and Fox Meadows. Downtown was reeling from the Martin Luther King assassination of 1968 (and TIME magazine calling us a decaying river town). But just in the early 1980’s downtown saw the reopening of the Peabody Hotel, opening of Mud Island, residential developments and the rebirth of Beale Street. Downtown was being rediscovered and starting with her print “Gateway to Memphis” in 1985, her landscapes celebrated the city. Soon offices and homes across the city had her paintings and a style that could almost be seen from across the room. “I asked someone ‘do you think I should take lessons? He said the problem is they teach you there technique instead of your own technique,” she says.

A look at her paintings shows a painstaking attention to detail. Signs have names whenever possible. The harder you look the more you see, they almost evoke the image from a large view camera. The paintings freeze time of places that have changed over the years. Her painting “Riverside” was from a photograph she took from the Rivermark April 26, 1986. Some of her prints celebrate Memphians from about 100 years ago enjoying places like Main Street, Court Square and Overton Park.

She retired from the police department in May, 1988. Colleagues framed her badge and a gold paintbrush. She had more time to paint and between 1983 and 1997 she released twenty four different prints. In 1993 she took got a new job- Grandmother. Judy Dunavant Young and husband Tommy had a son, Hunter. She celebrated the event painting the family crossing a stone bridge in a wagon in her painting “Heaven Sent.” Her last release, 1997’s “Moonlight over Memphis” shows downtown of the mid 1990’s – alive, clean and active with the high waters of the Mississippi looking almost like a bay and being illuminated by the glowing bridge.

“A lot of frame shops have gone out of business and it’s a risky thing to invest in prints.” Dunavant has not given up painting. Her home near Cordova Park has a studio, an art table and brushes ready for painting. Her next painting she plans on painting Jesus. The legacy might be carried further “Hunter is really talented. He painted that monkey,” she shows on her wall.

A member of Hope Presbyterian Church, she sees many blessings in her life. Back during those troubled times before the police department she called around to the city looking for financial help, but those programs were not there in 1962. “Had I gotten help maybe I would have sat at home and maybe have done nothing with my life,” she remembers. “I depended on God not welfare.”

Another time she was at a point where she thought she may lose her daughter. “What started out with breast cancer went to her lungs and went into her brain,” Dunavant remembers. “Judy calls me and says ‘mother you are not facing the fact that I am dying. You are in denial,” afterwards Judy called again, with Hunter who was about three. “She puts Hunter on the phone and he sings ‘You are My Sunshine’, That night that song kept going through my head …and I started crying and thinking ‘what if she really did die?” she thought. “The next morning I opened the door to get the newspaper,” she remembers. The wind had blown scrap paper into the yard along with a deflated inflated helium balloon that fell from the sky bearing the message “You are My Sunshine.” She framed one half of the balloon and gave the other half to Judy. “That told me God is in charge,” she says, showing the balloon. She has looked for ten years and has not found another balloon like it.

Today Judy is still living and has been cancer free since 2001 and living in Collierville with Tommy and Hunter. “All of her life she sacrificed for my brother and me,” Young says. “She really struggled and persevered through the hard times. She’s my hero!”