Johnson County, Iowa, has a new name.
It will still be Johnson County. But henceforth, the county is taking its name from a different Johnson: Lulu Merle Johnson, a professor and historian who was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Iowa.
It was originally named for Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as vice president under President Martin Van Buren.
Lulu Merle Johnson was born in 1907 in a small town called Gravity in southwestern Iowa, Johnson County’s board of supervisors wrote. Her father was born into slavery and went on to work as a barber and her mother was the daughter of freed slaves. When she enrolled at the State University of Iowa in 1925, she was one of 14 Black women at the university. She completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees there by 1930 and her Ph.D. in 1941.
“Through her determination to succeed despite discrimination and adversity, [she] embodied the values, ideals, and morals which the people of Johnson County strive to preserve and uphold,” the board of supervisors wrote in the resolution they approved Thursday.
She was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university, which is now more commonly called the University of Iowa. She was the 10th Black woman to earn a doctorate from a U.S. university, according to a university biography.
The board of supervisors note that the university considered her a “trailblazing academic.” The University of Iowa created a fellowship program in Johnson’s name in 2018.
Her dissertation was titled “The problem of slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787-1858.” It examines the history of slavery in the Northwest Territory, which is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and parts of Minnesota.
Johnson was not able to live in university housing, which was whites-only. She was forced to live off campus in a house with other Black women.
After graduating, universities in Iowa wouldn’t hire her because she was Black. She went on to teach at several historically Black colleges and universities: Talladega, Tougaloo, Florida A&M, and West Virginia State, and became the history professor and dean of women at what is now Cheyney University in Pennsylvania in 1952, according to her biography.
Johnson’s great niece, Sonya Jackson, tells NPR she began talking about the legacy of her great aunt decades ago.
“It’s been about a 30-year journey to get recognition for her. And my family has always felt very strongly given her legacy and what she accomplished at the University of Iowa that she should have been recognized in some powerful way,” Sonya Jackson says.
Royceann Porter is the vice chair of the board of supervisors and was on the committee involved with making the name change. She credits university archivist David McCartney with first bringing Johnson’s history to their attention. Efforts to rename the county really took off after the killing of George Floyd last year, Porter told All Things Considered.
Porter is the only Black member of the county board of supervisors. She says Johnson’s story is a personal inspiration.
“Despite facing discrimination because of her race and gender, she went on to succeed. Just wonderful to hear. To know that, as a Black woman … we always know that we can have something to look forward to,” Porter says.
Johnson retired in 1971 and spent the next two decades of her life traveling extensively. She died in 1995 in Delaware.
The board noted that the current longtime namesake, Richard Mentor Johnson, was a slave owner from Kentucky with no known connections to Iowa. The Wisconsin Territorial Legislature gave his name to the county in 1837.
Ron McMullen, an ambassador in residence at the University of Iowa, told the board Johnson was a particularly “despicable person.”
Richard Mentor Johnson had two children with a woman who was enslaved to him. Another woman enslaved to Johnson tried to escape but was hunted down, brought back and disciplined or sold, according to one historian.
He started in politics in 1804 in the Kentucky House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. House two years later. He continued in politics both in the House and Senate for three decades, according to a Senate biography.
He was vice president to Van Buren from 1837 to 1841. Johnson was the only vice president to have been picked by the Senate in accordance with the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.
Johnson took credit for killing the Shawnee chief Tecumseh during the War of 1812, which historians call a dubious claim.
Elena Burnett and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio story. James Doubek produced for the web.