‘Names carry power’: Johnson County is now named for a different Johnson

Lulu Merle Johnson received a BA, MA and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, despite facing racial discrimination on campus. — photos courtesy of Johnson County

Johnson County remains Johnson County, but has shed some historical baggage.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Thursday to change the county’s eponym — the person it is named for — from Richard Mentor Johnson, vice president of the United States (1837-1841) and lifelong slaveowner, to Iowan Lulu Merle Johnson, the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in history, and the daughter of a formerly enslaved father.

Conversations about changing the county’s eponym began in earnest last summer, after the murder of George Floyd and the reckoning on racial justice that followed. David McCartney, archivist of UI Libraries’ Special Collections, started a petition in July 2020 proposing the county shed its problematic eponym while avoiding the logistical challenges of a full name change.

“Thank you for this great honor for an extraordinary person,” Kim Jackson, a great-niece of Lulu Merle Johnson, said to the board before their vote.

In sharp contrast to Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, University of Iowa professor Ronald K. McMullen described the other Johnson, Richard Mentor, as a “despicable person.”

The southeast Iowa county was named for Richard Mentor Johnson in December 1837, nine years before Iowa was granted statehood. Johnson had been sworn in as President Martin Van Buren’s vice president earlier that year, but he has no known ties to the area, or Iowa.

Johnson was born in what is now Louisville, Kentucky in 1780. and represented Kentucky in Congress. Prior to his term as vice president, Johnson fought in the War of 1812 and is thought to have personally killed the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. (Whether truthful or not, Johnson later used this story to score political points, boasting the questionable campaign tune, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”) He enslaved people on his plantation in Kentucky, and had a very public sexual relationship with one of them — an enslaved mixed-race woman named Julie Chinn, whom Johnson considered his “common-law wife.”

“As an enslaved woman, Chinn could not consent to a relationship, and there’s no record of how she regarded him,” the Washington Post noted in a recent profile of Chinn.

The resolution approved by Johnson County’s Board of Supervisors removing Richard Johnson as the person the county’s name honors acknowledges these facts, including Johnson’s status as “a lifelong slave owner who was known for using his position as such to engage in coercive relationships with his slaves.”

“The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is committed to rectifying systemic racism and institutional inequity, including removing names and monuments that memorialize or honor a person who has perpetuated violence against Black people, Indigenous people, and other nonwhite people, or a cause that is manifestly unjust,” reads the resolution.

“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.”

Enter Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson.

She was born in 1907 on a farm bought by her grandfather outside Gravity, Iowa, located in the southwest region of the state. Johnson received her high school education at Clinton High School, where she was captain of the girl’s basketball team. She earned a bachelor’s degree and then an MA in history from the State University of Iowa (now known as the University of Iowa) with her Masters thesis “The Negro in Canada, Slave and Free.” Along with her classmate Missouri Allen, she was the first Black woman to receive a master’s degree at UI.

Johnson went South to teach at two historically Black colleges, believing “better schools and better teachers” are needed to educate Southern students of color. But she wasn’t done learning herself.

“Among the candidates for the degree of doctor of philosophy within the University of Iowa’s history department is a poised, mellow-voiced woman outstanding among her fellow candidates in one respect,” wrote the Daily Iowan on July 20, 1941. The reporter noted there were only 12 known Black women with Ph.D.s at the time.

The Daily Iowan, July 20, 1941 — courtesy of UI Libraries Iowa Digital Collection

Johnson successfully defended her dissertation, “The Problem of Slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787–1858,” in 1941, earning the first Ph.D. awarded to a Black woman at the University of Iowa, and the first history doctorate awarded to a Black woman in the United States. She achieved this despite facing discrimination on campus. She demonstrated against racist policies; for instance, in a military sciences class, she and other Black students sat in front-row seats designated for white students.

Black student activists like Johnson found ways to protest Jim Crow policies by turning the costs and inconveniences back on the university, Iowa Now‘s Tom Snee noted.

She also protested while fulfilling a policy that required students to pass a swimming test: The university was willing to let her and other Black students waive the test in order to keep them out of the pool because it would then have to be drained and refilled before white students could use it again. But Johnson and the others insisted on taking the test, getting a measure of revenge by doing so at odd hours, especially early in the morning, to make these segregationist policies as inconvenient as possible.

As an alumna, she joined forces with other Iowa grads to campaign against segregation in the university’s residence halls. This goal was achieved in 1946.

Johnson taught at Florida A&M University, West Virginia State College and others before rising up the ranks at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, where she served as a history professor and the dean of the women’s studies department. She retired to Delaware with her longtime partner Eunice Johnson. She died in 1995 at the age of 88.

The University of Iowa Graduate College recognized Johnson and her work by creating the Lulu Merle Johnson Recruitment Fellowship in 2018 to recruit doctoral students from underrepresented minority groups.

“Lulu Johnson’s farm-to-faculty experience exemplifies Johnson County’s unique contribution to the state, an opportunity for a world-class education as well as professional and occupational mobility,” said Leslie Schwalm, the chair of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at UI, in a conference call before the vote Thursday.

Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass choked up a bit as she read the conclusion of the board’s resolution Thursday:

Now, therefore, be it resolved that we, the Board of Supervisors of Johnson County, Iowa, shall henceforth recognize as its official eponym Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, an inspirational woman whose story of accomplishment in the face of adversity is one of which the citizens of Johnson County can be proud for generations to come.

Johnson County’s renaming — or, at least, re-eponyming — made national news overnight, with a New York Times article Friday morning headlined “An Iowa County Chooses to Be Named for a Black Professor, Not a Slaveowner.”

Johnson’s Masters thesis and dissertation are currently kept in the Iowa Women’s Archive in the UI Libraries’ Special Collections.

The Johnson County vote isn’t the first change in which a name has been reconsidered amid the current racial justice movement. In March, the Iowa City Council voted unanimously to change the name of Creekside Park to James Alan McPherson Park.

McPherson earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971 and returned to Iowa City to join its faculty a decade later, serving as a professor, and later as a professor emeritus, until his death in 2016. McPherson was a noted essayist and short story writer, and in 1979 he became the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. McPherson, who lived near the park now named in his honor, was also part of the first group of recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which are popularly known as “genius awards.”

Also in March, Linn County finalized a name change for Wanatee Creek (formerly Squaw Creek), removing the racial epithet that had been its name and honoring the memory of Jean Adeline Morgan Wanatee, an artist and advocate for the rights of Native Americans and women. The previous September, the county renamed the park named for the creek Wanatee Park.

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