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County named after slave owner renames itself after pioneer Black professor Lulu Merle Johnson

Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, whose father was born into slavery and mother was the daughter of freed slaves, was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Iowa.

County named after slave owner renames itself after pioneer Black professor Lulu Merle Johnson
Cover Image Source: Twitter/Johnson County, Iowa

Iowa's Johnson County now has a new name. Although it will technically still be Johnson County, the county's board of supervisors last week unanimously decided to change its official eponym to Lulu Merle Johnson, a professor and historian who was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Iowa. It was originally named after Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as vice president under President Martin Van Buren and was a lifelong slave owner. "We recognize that place names embody the identity and cultural values of a place. For that reason, it is important to establish an eponym of Johnson County who represents what is important to the people who live here," said Lisa Green-Douglass, Board of Supervisors member, reports CBS News.


"It has been a privilege to chair the Johnson County Eponym Committee, and to be able to recognize, honor, and establish Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson as the County's official eponym," Green-Douglass added. Johnson was born in 1907 in a small town called Gravity in southwestern Iowa to a father who was born into slavery and a mother who was the daughter of freed slaves. According to NPR, she enrolled at the State University of Iowa in 1925, becoming one of 14 Black women at the university. She completed bachelor's and master's degrees there by 1930, "despite facing open discrimination because of her race and gender," the board of supervisors said.


"Through her determination to succeed despite discrimination and adversity, [she] embodied the values, ideals, and morals which the people of Johnson County strive to preserve and uphold," the board wrote in the resolution approved on Thursday. Johnson went on to teach at the school while continuing her education. In 1941, she became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university, which is now more commonly called the University of Iowa.


As per a university biography, Johnson was the 10th Black woman to earn a doctorate from a US university. In 2017, the University of Iowa recognized Johnson by naming the Lulu Merle Johnson Fellowship in her honor. The annual recruitment fellowship funds underrepresented minority Ph.D. students. "Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson's experience, activism, and professional achievements represent the best of Iowa and the best of Johnson County," said Leslie Schwalm, professor of gender, women's, and sexuality studies who is an advocate for the change and who wrote a brief biography with Johnson's niece. "And because she was African American, her experience is particularly noteworthy for illuminating the significant challenges that Black Iowans and Black Iowa women, in particular, have faced in overcoming institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination."


Lena M Hill, the university's interim chief diversity officer and associate vice president, revealed that when Johnson earned her doctorate in 1941, she was forced to live off-campus in a house with other Black women since the residence halls at the school were Whites-only. Even after graduating, universities in Iowa wouldn't hire her because she was Black. "She received a quality education from U of I, but wasn't able to get employment in her home state because of the color of her skin," said Johnson's nephew, John Jackson.


Johnson went on to teach at several historically Black colleges and universities including Talladega, Tougaloo, Florida A&M, and West Virginia State and became the history professor and dean of women at what is now Cheyney University in Pennsylvania in 1952. She retired in 1971 and spent the last two decades of her life traveling extensively. She died in 1995 in Delaware. Johnson's great-niece, Sonya Jackson, revealed that she began talking about the legacy of her great aunt decades ago. "It's been about a 30-year journey to get recognition for her. And my family has always felt very strongly given her legacy and what she accomplished at the University of Iowa that she should have been recognized in some powerful way," she said.


The board noted that the county's previous namesake, Richard Mentor Johnson — originally named by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1837 — was a slave owner from Kentucky with no known connections to Iowa. Ron McMullen, an ambassador in residence at the University of Iowa, told the board that Johnson was a particularly "despicable person". He took credit for killing Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1805, which historians call a dubious claim. He reportedly had two children with a woman who was enslaved to him and when she died of cholera in 1833, he buried her in an unmarked grave and left her largely forgotten to history.

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