Leaders in Johnson County looking for new namesake

The 'Johnson' the county was named for was a slave owner

Johnson County logo
Johnson County logo

IOWA CITY — What’s in a namesake?

For some residents of Johnson County, as well as the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, the answer is a fair bit.

During a work session Wednesday, the board kicked off the process of changing the county’s namesake. The “Johnson” name will remain — but which Johnson the county is named after will change.

Founded in 1837, Johnson County is named for Richard Mentor Johnson, who was President Martin Van Buren’s vice president from 1837 to 1841. Johnson was also a slave owner and a “disastrous choice” for vice president, noted Tim Walch, retired director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch.

Walch spoke in favor of giving Johnson County a name that “fits the aspirations of the people who live” in the county.

“Can we not find a different Johnson?” Walch asked the board. “Perhaps a Johnson ... to better represent our values?”

Walch recommended forming a study committee that would research potential replacements for Richard Mentor Johnson, while keeping the Johnson name. He said an ideal candidate would have ties to Iowa or even Johnson County.

One name that already has emerged as a potential front-runner is Lulu Merle Johnson, who died in 1995. According to a letter submitted to the board, Lulu Merle Johnson was born in Gravity, Iowa; and attended the University of Iowa. Lulu Johnson was the second Black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in history and the first Black woman in Iowa to do so.


Leslie Schwalm, chair of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies in the Department of History at the UI, said the university already recognizes Lulu Merle Johnson’s historic place in the state’s past. A fellowship in the graduate college is named for Johnson.

“I’d like to strongly emphasize both how inappropriate a slaveholder is as our county’s namesake,” Schwalm said. “And secondly emphasize what an excellent candidate Lulu Merle Johnson would be to supplant him as our namesake.”

The board unanimously supported the idea of changing the county’s namesake. Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness told the board she would have to research the process for changing a county’s namesake. Supervisors Royceann Porter and Lisa Green-Douglass also volunteered to draft the parameters the committee would work off in selecting all namesake candidates.

“I’m absolutely in favor of kicking Richard Mentor Johnson out of the namesake position,” said Green-Douglass. “I read what I could find on Lulu Merle Johnson. I think she’s impressive.”

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