Johnson County supervisor asks 'what's in a name?'

Sullivan doesn't think county's namesake is best person to be honored

Johnson County is named for Richard M. Johnson, who served as the ninth vice president of the United States under Martin Van Buren. (Library of Congress Photo)
Johnson County is named for Richard M. Johnson, who served as the ninth vice president of the United States under Martin Van Buren. (Library of Congress Photo)

He’s not suggesting making the “People’s Republic of Johnson County” the official name, but Supervisor Rod Sullivan is “pretty serious” that Johnson County should have a discussion about who its name honors.

He’s not suggesting a name change at all.

“That would be a nightmare,” said Sullivan, a 13-year member of the county board.

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But after reading the history of Richard Mentor Johnson, a former U.S. senator who in 1837 became vice president to Martin Van Buren, Sullivan thinks Johnson might not be the best person to be honored by the county’s name.

Sullivan would be “very surprised” if more than a few people knew that history.

“I knew who it was named after, but didn’t know much about his history,” he said. The book Sullivan read “was quite an eye-opener.”

According to some histories, Johnson personally killed Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who led Native Americans in support of the British during the War of 1812.

Johnson had a “confusing” relationship with one of his slaves, Julia Chinn. The law prohibited them from marrying, but he considered Chinn his common-law wife. Together they championed the “notion of a diverse society,” according to the book, “The Vice President and the Mulatto.”

Chinn was the mother of his daughters. Johnson paid for their education and left them an inheritance — but insisted they were his property.

The interracial relationship proved a political liability in the mid-19th century, and Democrats refused to nominate Johnson for a second term.

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Sullivan sees similarities between the use of Johnson’s name and recent discussions of the appropriateness of Confederate monuments.

“People haven’t given much thought to what they are about,” the Iowa City Democrat said.

Denny Gruber has given it some thought and doesn’t agree.

“I’d have a hard time with that,” said Gruber, a retired Solon history teacher and member of the Solon Area Community Foundation that paid $10,000 for a Freedom Rock that includes a depiction of Johnson, “Not everybody is perfect. People do good and bad things.”

Sullivan plans to discuss the matter with the board to see if supervisors have any interest in addressing the issues.

“If there’s not, that’s OK. We’ll go about our business,” he said. “If people are interested, we can talk about what it might look like.”

It looks “absolutely, positively ridiculous” to Curt Phillips, a member of the American Legion Stinocher Post 460 in Solon. “People need to grow up and stop acting like a 12-year-old. That’s what I think.”

Phillips said he has given the matter some thought because there is a depiction of Johnson on that Freedom Rock, which is outside the legion’s building.

“It figures this is going on in Johnson County,” Phillips said. “This whole business of statues and changing names because it might offend somebody is directed at a whole herd of thin-skinned do-gooders who have nothing better to do with their life other than find something else to whine and complain about.”

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Johnson “is a war hero from the United States. He’s not a criminal. He’s not a bad guy,” said Phillips, a Vietnam-era Army veteran,

“Why don’t we burn the Herbert Hoover Library down?” he asked.

There’s precedent for re-appropriating a county name, Sullivan said. In 1986, supervisors in King County, Wash., — named after an Alabama confederate — voted to keep the name but use it to honor civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

There are plenty of Johnsons who could be honored by Johnson County, Sullivan said. A few “half serious” people have suggested Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Sullivan suggested bluesman Robert Johnson or civil rights leader James Johnson. Although Sullivan liked Lyndon Johnson’s domestic policies, “his Vietnam legacy would likely be too upsetting for too many.”

“What about Lady Bird? She was one of the original environmentalists,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter.

Sullivan won’t be heartbroken if his colleagues don’t want to act on his suggestion, “but I can rest assured everyone knows the history of the name.”

Counties in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Nebraska are also named after Johnson.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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