Spokane's Haircut Fight

Black Spokane's Fight For Civil Rights

In October 1963, in downtown Spokane an exchange student at Gonzaga University from Liberia went into a barbershop to ask for a haircut. In a few minutes, Jangba Johnson experienced what it meant to be a second-class citizen in the United States of America.

Jangba Johnson was humiliated by the barbershop owner John W. Wheeler for refusing to service the young Black man saying that he did not cut “colored hair”. Johnson complained to his fellow students at Gonzaga about his mistreatment. Some students, mostly whites asked Wheeler to promise that such an incident would never happen again. When Wheeler refused the students picketed Wheeler’s barbershop, a protest that was reported in the national news media. They also went into Spokane’s local NAACP office and filed a complaint against Weeler’s barbershop, on the grounds of racial discrimination in what would turn out to be Spokane's most defining civil rights case of the 1960s.

The lawyer who took the case was Carl Maxey, Spokane's leading civil rights attorney who broke down several barriers for people of color in the city. Maxey took Johnson’s case pro bono and filed a complaint on his behalf to the Washington State Board Against Discrimination, arguing that it was illegal for a business that serves the public to refuse service based on race.

The case quickly divided the city and attracted national attention to Spokane. On one side was Carl Maxey representing the student Jangba Johnson and the other was Michael J. Hemovich representing the barbershop owner John Wheeler. Hemovich and Maxey traded blows against each other. Maxey argued that since a “barber’s license is a privilege and not a right. A barber cannot, under the law arbitrarily refuse service to a customer based on their race.” Hemovich argued that forcing Wheeler “to perform a personal service constituted to what amount as involuntary servitude.” Each side gave as good as they go in front of a packed audience.

It took the Board of Discrimination three minutes to give out a judgment on the case. They ruled against John Wheeler, ordering him to serve all races in his barbershop. Wheeler appealed to the State’s Supreme Court and lost. Rather than serve African Americans in his barbershop, Wheeler decided to close shop and retire.

This case was just another win for Maxey, for the city and people of Spokane it was something else. Spokane was a city with a small African American population, and the case of Jangba Johnson and John Wheeler brought the topic of both segregation and racism to the front of discussions in the city.



778 W Sprague Ave, Spokane, WA 99201