Names are changing in Eastern Iowa, and it’s for the better.
The former “Squaw Creek” Park near Highway 100 and 151 in rural Linn County has officially been renamed Wanatee Park, after Jean Adeline Morgan Wanatee, a 20th century women’s rights advocate from the Meskwaki Nation.
And Johnson County has designated a new namesake, ousting former Vice President Richard M. Johnson in favor of Lulu Merle Johnson, the first Black woman to earn a doctoral degree in Iowa.
The renamings are part of the movement to challenge racist policies and symbols in our governments and public spaces. Honorary designations are no substitute for systemic policy change, but this still is an important step in reckoning with our region’s racist history.
“Squaw” is a pejorative term used against Native American women. Dozens of municipalities and nature features around the country use the name, though many of those have changed in the past two decades. The Linn County Board of Conservation also is requesting the to change the name of the nearby creek to Wanatee Creek.
County officials said they consulted with Meskwaki representatives to select a name. Wanatee was born on the settlement in Tama in 1910 and was an advocate for women’s rights and education.
Johnson, the vice president under Martin Van Buren, was a slave owner and led brutal attacks against Native Americans in the War of 1812. According to some accounts, he killed Tecumseh, who organized a confederacy of Native American tribes to resist American expansion.
Johnson the scholar was born to former slaves in 1907 in Iowa, overcoming prejudice and segregation to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1941. She is believed to be the first Black woman in the country to earn a doctorate in history.
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These are small changes in the grand scheme of things. This alone won’t reduce police encounters, provide economic security to people of color or reverse centuries of land grabbing.
Those big, impactful changes require an understanding of where we have been, and the deep roots of racial injustice in our civic lives. Repurposing our public assets to elevate and celebrate worthy role models can help instill greater understanding of our messy history.
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