Johnson County switches its namesake from slave owner to Black scholar

County name now honors first Black woman to earn a doctorate in Iowa

Lulu Merle Johnson (University of Iowa photo)
Lulu Merle Johnson (University of Iowa photo)

IOWA CITY — Johnson County soon will no longer be named for a slave owner with no ties to the state or county.

During a work session Wednesday, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to change the county’s eponym — the person it is named after — to Lulu Merle Johnson, who earned her Ph.D. in history in 1941 at the University of Iowa.

She became the first Black woman in the state to earn a doctorate, and was among the first Black women nationwide to earn one.

“She left behind a really important legacy, I think, for Johnson County,” said Leslie Schwalm, chair of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies in the Department of History at the UI.

Once the process to change the county’s eponym is complete, Lulu Merle Johnson will take the place of Richard Mentor Johnson, who was vice president to President Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841.

Vice President Johnson was a slave owner and a “disastrous choice” for vice president, according to Tim Walch, former president of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

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

Lulu Merle Johnson was born into a successful farm family in 1907, but her parents had been born into slavery. Schwalm said Johnson’s journey from “farm to faculty” represents a distinctly Iowan experience.

According to a UI biography, Johnson faced discrimination at the university both before and after her educational accomplishments.

“Johnson liked telling the story of how she was forced to enroll in a swimming class as a requirement for her Ph.D. even though it had nothing to do with her thesis. Johnson couldn’t take the class when white students were in the pool, so she informed her instructor that she would swim at 5 a.m.” the UI biography reads.

“Making class time inconvenient for her instructor was a small victory for Johnson.”

The UI forbade her from teaching there, too. After earning her doctorate, Johnson taught at a number of historically Black colleges and universities, Schwalm said.

The UI since has recognized Johnson’s historic place in the state’s past, with a fellowship in the graduate college named in her honor.

While Johnson County is determining the process for officially changing its eponym, the ad hoc committee convened to come up with candidates has now been charged with determining how to property recognize Johnson, who died in 1995. Board Chair Rod Sullivan recommended a monument, plaque or some kind of signage in Johnson’s honor, along with a celebration to be planned.

“I think it would be an honor to have a celebration in her name,” said Supervisor Royceann Porter.

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