J. Earl Downs

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James Earl Downs

Public Safety Commissioner
(position abolished, 1978)
In office
Succeeded by George Wendell D'Artois, Sr.

Born June 18, 1905
Rapides Parish, Louisiana
Died September 20, 1998
Franklin, Macon County
North Carolina
Political party Democrat
Spouse(s) Helen Whitener Downs
Children James U. Downs

U. T. Downs
Callie McCann Downs Relatives:
Crawford Hugh "Sammy" Downs (brother)
Jam Downs (nephew)

Religion Southern Baptist

James Earl Downs, known as J. Earl Downs (June 18, 1905 – September 20, 1998),[1] was a Democratic politician from Shreveport, Louisiana, who served from 1954 to 1962 as the municipal public safety commissioner, a citywide elected position under the former municipal commission government. He was unseated in the 1962 primary election by George Wendell D'Artois, Sr. (1925-1977), a former Caddo Parish deputy sheriff.[2]

In Shreveport and in other cities with the commission form of government, the commissioner exercises both legislative and executive duties, on the city council and as a department head. This position should not be confused with a county commissioner, most of whom were and still are elected by single-member districts. County commissioners are the "legislators" of a county (called parish in Louisiana), with the county judge normally in the role of the "executive" head of the county. In Louisiana, the executive of the parish can be the police jury president, the president of the parish, or a parish "administrator", depending on the structure of the parish government. City commissioners could not be chosen on a district basis, as their administrative duties affected the entire city. African Americans were not then elected to city government in most parts of the South. Soon an outcry in the civil rights movement raised legal challenges to the city commission governments.


Downs was descended from a political family based in Rapides Parish in Central Louisiana. His father, Uriah T. Downs, was the mayor of Pineville from 1914 to 1924 and the Rapides Parish sheriff from 1924 to 1940. In the 1920s, U. T. Downs was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.[3] Downs's younger brother, Crawford Hugh "Sammy" Downs (1911-1985), was a member of both houses of the Louisiana legislature in the 1940s and 1950s and was an advisor to Governors |Earl Kemp Long and John J. McKeithen.[4] His nephew, James Crawford Downs, son of Sammy Downs, is the former long-serving district attorney for Rapides Parish.

Earl and Sammy Downs were two of seven children of U. T. Downs and the former Callie McCann (1884-1983).[5] He graduated in 1928 from Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College in Pineville. He then obtained a master's degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. C. H. "Sammy" Downs followed this same educational path but in 1946 obtained a law degree as well. Earl Downs taught and coached during the 1930s in Jena, Louisiana, where his father graduated from Jena High School, and in Logansport in DeSoto Parish and Winnfield in Winn Parish. He left the education profession to become a traveling salesman. Beginning in 1944, he entered into an oil and gas business.[6] 

Political life

In 1948, Downs ran unsuccessfully for the Louisiana Public Service Commission for the seat held from 1942 to 1944 by Governor Jimmie Davis.[6] In 1954, Downs was elected Shreveport public safety commissioner, a position previously held from 1938 to 1942 by subsequent Governor Jimmie Davis. He served two terms, first with Mayor James C. Gardner[7] and then with Clyde Fant. One of Downs' fellow commissioners was H. Lane Mitchell, who presided over public works.

Early in 1955, Victor Bussie, an officer in the Shreveport Fire Department acting through the Central Trades and Labor Council in Shreveport during his lunch hour, called a strike of waitresses at Brocato's Restaurant when the company declined to rehire a fired waitress. In retaliation, Commissioner Downs demoted Bussie to the rank of captain and assigned him to a fire station. Bussie took unpaid leave and appealed Downs's decision to the Shreveport Fire and Police Civil Service Board. After fourteen sessions and fifty hours of testimony, the civil service board voted 4–1 to uphold the demotion, with the lone dissenter being the firefighters' representative. Bussie announced that he would appeal to the courts. Meanwhile, he became the state AFL-CIO president for the remainder of his working career and resided in Baton Rouge. No action was ever taken by the courts in Bussie's appeal of his demotion by Downs.[8]

In the fall of 1961, Commissioner Downs, along with Mayor Fant, Caddo Parish Sheriff J. Howell Flournoy, chief deputy and subsequent Sheriff James M. Goslin, were defendants in a desegregation suit filed by the United States Department of Justice at the request of the Interstate Commerce Commission Continental Southern, Inc., which operated the Trailways bus terminal in Shreveport. Hugh B. Walmsley, manager of the terminal removed signs that had required racially separate facilities for restaurant, waiting room, restroom, and ticket sale services. Judge Benjamin C. Dawkins, Jr., of the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, based in Shreveport, in his 1962 ruling sided with the Justice Department, as did the United States Supreme Court on appeal. The court decreed that the segregated facilities "imposes an undue burden upon interstate commerce in violation of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. The city of Shreveport was ordered to pay the costs of the litigation. The city was represented in the case by later U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr.[9]   After his tenure ended as the public safety commissioner, Downs was a social worker involved in job training and vocational rehabilitation services.[10]

Later years

Downs was married to the former Helen Whitener (1908-2007), originally from Natchitoches, the daughter of Samuel S. Whitener, Sr., and the former Harriet Rebecca "Bitsy" Brewton.[11] The Downses had one son, retired North Carolina senior resident Superior Court Judge James U. Downs, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and the Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. Originally appointed to the court by four-term Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., who lost the U.S. Senate election in North Carolina in 1984 to Republican stalwart Jesse Helms, James U. Downs was elected to the bench four times without opposition. His jurisdiction was in Buncombe and other counties in western North Carolina. He returned in 2014 to the private practice of law, with an office in Franklin in Macon County in southwestern North Carolina.[12]

In their later years, J. Earl and Helen Downs relocated from Shreveport to Franklin, North Carolina, to be near their son and his family. They were already living in Franklin by 1985 at the time of the death of Sammy Downs.[4] Earl Downs died in 1998 of congestive heart failure[10] at the age of ninety-three and is interred alongside his wife at Woodlawn Cemetery in Franklin.[1]  


  1. 1.0 1.1 James Earl Downs. Findagrave.com. Retrieved on January 3, 2015.
  2. (2009) Bill Keith, The Commissioner: A True Story of Deceit, Dishonor, and Death. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 81. ISBN 9781-58980-655-9. Retrieved on January 4, 2015. 
  3. Henry E. Chambers, A History of Louisiana: Wilderness, Colony, Province, Territory, State, People, (Chicago and New York City: American Historical Society, Inc., 1925), pp. 245-246
  4. 4.0 4.1 Crawford H. "Sammy" Downs. The Baton Rouge Advocate (May 15, 1985). Retrieved on January 3, 2015.
  5. Callie McCann. familytreemaker.genealogy.com. Retrieved on January 3, 2014.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Minden, Louisiana, Herald, July 30, 1948.
  7. Mary Jimenez (March 6, 2005). The $19 million solution Bond election sets up 1950s Shreveport for growth. The Shreveport Times. Retrieved on January 7, 2015.
  8. James C. Gardner, Jim Gardner and Shreveport, Vol. I, pp. 321–322.
  9. United States v. City of Shreveport. casetext.com (November 16, 1962). Retrieved on January 14, 2015.
  10. 10.0 10.1 J. Earl Downs. search.ancestry.com. Retrieved on January 10, 2015.
  11. Ralph Whitener (1919-2011) (brother of Helen Downs). The Shreveport Times (October 1, 2011). Retrieved on January 3, 2015.
  12. Judge Downs returns to private practice. The Macon County (North Carolina) News (April 17, 2014). Retrieved on January 3, 2015.