Katherine Johnson. Photo: Courtesy of Edward Slaughter
Katherine Johnson died in August after decades cutting hair in Berkeley. Photo: Courtesy of Edward Slaughter

“Ms. J was an independent godly woman from the South.”

These words were used by Garland Albert Sr. to describe longtime South Berkeley barber Katherine Johnson — better known around town as “Ms. J” and “Punkin” — who died Aug. 7 after a long battle with cancer. For over 30 years, she has widely been regarded as one of the most highly touted barbers in Berkeley’s black community, in a field still dominated by men.

Albert, a lifelong Berkeley resident who has aimed in his adult life to help Berkeley youth through coaching football and mentor programs, said he had the pleasure of watching Ms. J build her brand from the ground up.

“Being a lady, she had to endure people who thought she would be an easy mark,” he said. “But, as we all know, she demanded respect and was loyal to her soil.”

For those unfamiliar with the expression, it means that Johnson always put her community first. It’s a reference to a flower growing from the soil, and never forgetting that, without it, the flower wouldn’t exist.

The barbershop, for the black community, is essentially a one-stop shop. Anything and everything can take place there. In the city of Berkeley, one of the most influential barbershops for the past few decades has been Just Cuts, opened by Ms. J in the early 90s.

When Ms. J first opened her barbershop on Russell and Sacramento streets, she opened it under the name the Pumpkin Patch. Her mother had given her the nickname “Punkin” at a young age in Medlin, Texas, and the name traveled with her all the way to Berkeley.

In black culture, there is nothing more sacred than the barbershop. Many hours are spent in those shops not only getting haircuts but also trading war stories, discussing the latest news in the community, and of course arguing about sports and politics.

On any given day you could enter Just Cuts and find the shop full of people of all ages. Ms. J was known for her love of Berkeley athletics teams, including UC Berkeley football and Berkeley High basketball. Her support for the programs could be seen in the memorabilia all over her shop. She hung pictures, flags and jerseys on Just Cuts’ walls, which she eventually painted blue and gold on one side to reflect the Cal colors, and red and yellow on the other side in homage to Berkeley High’s colors.

Not only has Just Cuts been host to some of the best haircuts in the city, according to its customers, but it has also given members of the community a place to escape the troubles of everyday life.

“Spent MANY a day waiting patiently in the shop for one of your tight fades. Such a sweet and wonderful woman,” wrote Todd Wheat, on a memorial post to Johnson created by Albert on Facebook. Wheat described Ms. J as a “BTown legend.”

Ms. J gave the people of Berkeley a chance to experience the culture of the black barbershop in the finest way possible. On Aug. 22, her funeral was held at Fouche’s Hudson Funeral Home in Oakland, after she lost what those who knew her described as a long and difficult battle with cancer. Buried with her was a sense of hope, pride and class that those who came into contact with Ms. J say they hope they can pass on to others.

From the moment she opened her shop, Ms. J made it her purpose to have a positive impact on the community. She started by hiring barbers such as longtime Berkeley community members Ron Pendleton and Edward “Pookie” Slaughter, her nephew.

“I knew her previously [when she worked] at the barbershop Johnson’s across the street. She had the same passion for cutting hair as myself,” said Pendleton. “We both thought we could make something great together for the community.… We wanted Just Cuts to be based on community uplifting and support.”

In addition to her willingness to open her doors wide to welcome community members from around the city, Ms. J was a talented barber. As a result, many of her customers stayed with her throughout their lives. Her skilled haircuts and inviting personality helped her to develop a consistent clientele that stuck with her over the years. “Only lady I let cut me from wave to a bald head,” noted Simon Edwards, on Facebook.

Ms. J was inspired by not only the duty, but also the right, that drove her to have a positive impact on her community. Those who knew her described her as one of the most significant local female barbers in a profession still dominated by men. She embraced the profession and put in the time and effort necessary to create a successful operation that survived and thrived throughout the decades.

“She cut hair in Berkeley for well over 30 years,” said Slaughter, who started getting haircuts from Ms. J when she worked at Johnson’s, across the street, before she opened Just Cuts. “I think I was about 13 when I started going there and I’m 48. So you see how long she’s been on that block.”

Just Cuts closed Sept. 1 and, just like Ms. J’s presence, the shop will surely be missed. The love, effort and consistency she displayed is not easy to come by. The positive vibes and community feel that only a shop like Just Cuts could provide will always be remembered by the many clients who visited the shop over the years. As a result of Ms. J’s passing, the city of Berkeley lost a legend, but her impact is one that will always be remembered through the lives she touched.

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no charge, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com.

Delency Parham is a Berkeleyside intern who graduated from Berkeley High and the University of Idaho. 

Delency Parham is a graduate of the University of Idaho where he played football and majored in journalism. He graduated from Berkeley High in 2010, which is where he discovered his passion for writing....