116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Nearly 200 years after being named after a slave owner, Johnson County has a new namesake.
“The people of Johnson County acknowledge that names carry power and believe the county eponym should be a person who both embodies their sense of values, ideals and morals and has a personal connection to Johnson County and the state of Iowa,” Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass said in reading the resolution approving the namesake change.
Green-Douglass’ voice shook as she concluded the resolution that officially names Johnson County after Lulu Merle Johnson, the first Black woman in Iowa to earn a Ph.D. and one of the first Black women nationwide to earn one.
Applause followed the supervisors’ unanimous adoption of the resolution.
“It’s a good day,” said board Chairman Pat Heiden, who asked Green-Douglass to read the resolution in recognition of her efforts in researching and implementing the name change.
In 1837, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature named Johnson County for Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, a Kentuckian with no known connection to the state.
Johnson was a lifelong slave owner and “despicable person” for his treatment of Black people and Native Americans, according to Ron McMullen, who teaches political science at UI.
McMullen wrote an opinion article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen last year calling for Johnson County to change its namesake.
Last year, the county supervisors unanimously agreed to change the county’s eponym to Lulu Merle Johnson. Born in Gravity, Iowa, in 1907, she was the first person on her father’s side to be born outside of slavery.
Johnson enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1925 and was one of only 14 Black women enrolled in the university.
Johnson challenged segregation and discrimination in Iowa City and on campus, according to Leslie Schwalm, chair of Gender, Women's & Sexuality Studies in the Department of History at the UI.
“She was really a remarkable person,” Schwalm said.
After earning her Ph.D. in history in 1941, Johnson taught at a number of historically Black colleges and universities.
The UI has recognized Johnson's historic place in the state's past, with a fellowship in the graduate college named in her honor.
Kim Jackson, Johnson’s great niece, was on the phone to hear the board approve the name change.
“Thank you for this great honor for an extraordinary person,” Jackson said.
Supervisor Royceann Porter said she participates in a civil rights tour for children. She said a visit to Johnson’s hometown will be added to the tour.
“I am so proud of this moment,” she said. “I’m so happy … It’s a wonderful feeling.”
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