An Iowa County Chooses to Be Named for a Black Professor, Not a Slaveowner

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Johnson County selected Lulu Merle Johnson, a Black educator and historian, as its official eponym, replacing Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth U.S. vice president.

Lulu Merle Johnson is the latest University of Iowa alumna to have her accomplishments enshrined in memory, becoming the new official eponym for Johnson County.
Credit...Family photo

Neil Vigdor

Published June 24, 2021Updated June 25, 2021, 12:02 a.m. ET

A county in Iowa cut ties on Thursday with a slave-owning U.S. vice president for which it had been named, choosing instead to be named for a professor who was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in the state.

They shared a surname: Johnson.

Johnson County chose Lulu Merle Johnson, who taught history at several historically Black colleges and universities, as its official eponym after a unanimous vote by the county’s Board of Supervisors. The county, a Democratic bastion, is home to Iowa City and the University of Iowa.

It had been named after Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president and a Kentuckian who had no known connections to Iowa. He served with President Martin Van Buren, a fellow Democrat, from 1837 to 1841.

Officials said that his past as a slave owner who boasted about killing the Shawnee chief Tecumseh during the War of 1812 made him a negative role model and that he did not embody the values of the county’s residents.

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Credit...Board of Supervisors, Johnson County, Iowa

Lisa Green-Douglass, a county supervisor who helped write the resolution to change the county’s eponym, said during the board’s meeting on Thursday in Iowa City that naming something for a person puts them on a pedestal.

“So if we’re going to do that,” she said, “it indeed should be somebody of character who represents those values that we hold dear.”

It was not the first time that a county had renounced a vice president as its eponym. In 2005, lawmakers and the governor of Washington State approved naming King County after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. instead of William Rufus King, the 13th vice president, who owned slaves and supported the Fugitive Slave Act. King County, which includes Seattle and is the most-populous county in Washington, had sought the change for about two decades.

Johnson County’s reckoning with its identity came amid a national examination of names and symbols associated with slavery and prejudice after George Floyd’s killing last year in police custody.

The measure’s supporters said that Dr. Johnson, who died in 1995, was unquestionably deserving of the honor.

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Credit...Family photo

In 1941, she received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Iowa, becoming the first African American woman in the state to earn a doctorate, according to her biography. She was one of the first Black women in the United States to earn a doctorate in history, said a post on the website of the university, which named a fellowship after her that helps underrepresented minority graduate students.

Dr. Johnson faced discrimination as a student. She recounted to academics at the university that she had been required to take a swimming class for her Ph.D. even though it had no relevance, but she was not allowed to use the pool at the same time as white students. She was also not welcome to live on campus.

“Her family was very familiar with the practice of slavery,” Leslie A. Schwalm, the chair of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa, said during a conference call with the board before the vote. “On her father’s side, she was the first person born free in that side of the family.”

Dr. Schwalm, who served on a committee that considered the change, said that Dr. Johnson’s family achieved prosperity as farmers in Gravity, Iowa, after the Civil War.

“That prosperity eventually allowed Lulu to attend the University of Iowa, where she became part of a group of Black students who really challenged segregation and discrimination in the city and at the university,” she said.

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Lulu Johnson, second from the left, with other first-year University of Iowa students. She arrived on campus in 1925, and because the university and Iowa City were rigidly segregated, could live only in an apartment with other African American students, according to Leslie A. Schwalm, a university professor.
Credit...Althea Moore, via University of Iowa

Dr. Johnson taught history at Florida A&M University, West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) and what is now Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, where she served as a dean of women’s studies, according to her biography.

Kim Jackson, a great-niece of Dr. Johnson, expressed her gratitude to the board before the vote.

“Thank you for this great honor for an extraordinary person,” she said.

Royceann Porter, the board’s lone Black member, beamed moments before the measure passed.

“I am so proud of this moment,” she said. “I’m so happy.”

Those who supported the change said that Iowa was part of the Wisconsin Territory in 1837 when the territorial legislature named the county after Richard Mentor Johnson. He was the only vice president to be chosen by the U.S. Senate, based on the 12th Amendment of the Constitution, in February 1837 after no vice-presidential candidate received a majority of votes in the election, according to his biography.

Mr. Johnson’s critics said that he preyed on women who were enslaved and fathered two children with one of them.

Ronald K. McMullen, a professor at the University of Iowa and career diplomat who supported the change, called Mr. Johnson a “despicable person” during the board’s meeting.

“Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson should be a positive role model for all of us,” he said.

He said it was fitting that the county should be named after someone from Gravity.

“Now, if you so vote,” he said, “we can say that we have an eponym with gravitas.”

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