Leonard Carl Maxey’s life was a battle from day one, but he was ready for the fight. Maxey was born on June 23, 1924 in Tacoma, Washington, to a young mother who was just 13 years old. Maxey’s birth mother and grandmother put him up for adoption and he was adopted by a Spokane couple. When Maxey was four years old his father abandoned the family and his mother struggled to support Carl as a single mother. This time, no longer a newborn and not as desirable for adoption, Maxey ended up at an orphanage, the Spokane Children’s Home. In 1936, when Maxey was 12 years old, the orphanage board of directors voted to kick the two black children out of the home leaving Maxey and his friend with nowhere to go. This first-hand experience with racism had a lasting impact on Maxey.
After a short stay at juvenile hall, Maxey was fortunate to find a new home at the Sacred Heart Mission Indian School in DeSmet, Idaho. A Jesuit Priest, Father Byrne, took Maxey in and mentored him. He provided him with boarding at the mission and education at the Indian school, but he also taught Maxey about the sport of boxing. At 13 years old, Maxey was fighting against grown men in boxing matches hosted by amateur sports clubs like the Potlach Amateur Athletic Club. When Maxey was 15 years old, Father Byrne pulled on his Jesuit connections to land Maxey a full ride scholarship to Gonzaga Preparatory High School. At Gonzaga Prep, Maxey continued to excel at athletics, competing on the basketball team, the track and field relay team, and as a halfback on the football field.
After graduating high school in 1942, Maxey enrolled at Gonzaga University where he intended to continue playing sports. He joined the basketball team but was frustrated by his racist teammates, so he quit and found a new but familiar home in the boxing gym. Maxey’s collegiate boxing career got off to a strong start, but world changing events altered his course. The United States involvement in World War II escalated quickly prompting Maxey to enlist in the military. He aspired to be a pilot, but segregation pushed him into a Black medical unit. Before enlisting, Maxey had considered pursuing a career as a dentist so working as a medic interested him. As a fighter by nature, Maxey was disappointed as he had hoped to see active combat but never left the United States.
After World War II was over, Maxey was discharged and then used his G.I. Bill tuition waiver to attend the University of Oregon at Eugene. Maxey met his first wife there, but she graduated in 1947 after Maxey’s first year. The pair returned to Spokane so Maxey could begin law school at Gonzaga, which (unlike today) did not require prospective students to hold an undergraduate degree for admission. The newlyweds settled into Spokane’s Vinegar Flats Neighborhood where they lived in a public housing project designated for war veterans.
Maxey attended law school at night and trained in the boxing gym by day. The boxing bulldog found success in the ring, winning all of his collegiate bouts going into the 1949-1950 season. Despite being heavy underdogs, Gonzaga earned a spot at the NCAA Boxing Championship Tournament at Penn State University. Maxey and his fellow bulldogs put on a clinic and earned a co-championship with their regional rivals from the University of Idaho. Maxey and the championship team returned to Spokane to huge fanfare and celebration. No other Gonzaga sports team has won a national championship in the university’s history. Despite having another year of collegiate eligibility, Maxey decided to retire from boxing while he was at the top. He went undefeated, 32-0, in his collegiate boxing career.
After boxing, Maxey focused his attention on completing law school, which he did in January of 1951. Despite his stellar boxing record, his cumulative GPA was just 2.25. Nonetheless, he graduated school and passed the state’s Bar Examination. He was the first Black individual to graduate from Gonzaga Law School and he was the first Black lawyer in Spokane. Although Spokane was not governed by the Jim Crow Laws of the American South, it was still a place mired in racism where opportunities for Black residents were restricted.
With his law degree in hand, Maxey set out to break down the barriers that had restricted upward mobility for Black folks. At each instance where he recognized Black Spokanites were treated differently than their white counterparts, he developed a legal strategy to remedy the issue. He sued powerful organizations like the State Liquor Control Board and the Spokane School District, and he won his first appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1956.
Maxey also had political aspirations. He was named President of the local NAACP chapter at 27 years old, he ran for the state legislature at 28, he was nominated for the Washington State Supreme Court, he ran as an anti-war candidate for the United States Senate against Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1970, and he was the state co-chair for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Despite his persistence, he never held a public elected office.
As Spokane’s first Black attorney, Maxey worked hard to break down segregation and inequality in the city. He was not scared to sue anyone. After accomplishing more in his life than any individual could expect from themselves, Maxey ended his life in 1997 at 73 years old. In his obituary, the New York Times credited Maxey with “virtually single handedly desegregating much of the Inland Northwest.” Although he did not work alone, this claim is hardly an overstatement.
Thank you to Jim Kershner for his excellent research and writing about Maxey’s life that made this story possible. There is much more to tell about Maxey’s story. If you want to learn more, please read Carl Maxey, A Fighting Life by Jim Kershner.