An Iowa County Once Named for a Slave-Owning Vice President is Now Named After a Trailblazing Black Woman

Another slave owner’s legacy took an L this week after officials in Johnson County, Iowa unanimously decided to rename the county after Lulu Merle Johnson– a long-time academic who was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Iowa and in the entire state itself.

Originally, Richard Mentor Johnson was the namesake of what the Associated Press referred to as Iowa’s “most liberal county.” Johnson, who was not from Iowa and had no formal ties to the state, was the Vice President of the United States under Martin Van Buren. And, as mentioned before, he owned slaves.

CBS News reports that he also took credit for killing Shawnee Chief Tecumseh during the Battle of the Thames in 1805–which was an effort by Native Americans to stop the continued expansion of the United States into their land.

In other words, that dude sucked for various reasons.

From CBS News:

“We recognize that place names embody the identity and cultural values of a place. For that reason, it is important to establish an eponym of Johnson County who represents what is important to the people who live here,” Lisa Green-Douglass, Board of Supervisors member, said. “It has been a privilege to chair the Johnson County Eponym Committee, and to be able to recognize, honor, and establish Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson as the County’s official eponym.”

According to the University of Iowa, Lulu Merle Johnson was “one of the university’s most accomplished African-American graduates.” She was born in 1907 to a successful and well-established farming family.

Her father was a freed slave, and her mother was the daughter of freed slaves.

When she arrived at the University of Iowa campus in 1925, the campus and Iowa City itself were extremely segregated at the time. But, as the university describes, she openly and actively stood against the discrimination she faced.

In a military science class, she and other Black students sat in the front row in seats that had been assigned to white students and raised their hands with answers at the ready whenever the instructor asked a question.

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.

… And Johnson was also part of a group of alumni who led a campaign to desegregate the university’s residence halls, which finally happened in 1946.

After Johnson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and later her doctorate, she mostly taught at historically Black institutions due to the fact that most colleges and universities wouldn’t hire Black teachers at the time. She ultimately became a history professor and dean of women at Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania, remaining there until her retirement in 1971.

The University of Iowa says that Johnson’s primary focus of as a scholar was the history of slavery. She pushed back against sanitized and wildly inaccurate portrayals of slavery that were prevalent throughout education at the time.

“The study of slavery was a field then dominated by white scholars who portrayed slavery as beneficial to people of African descent, arguing that enslaved people were kindly treated,” says (Leslie) Schwalm, herself a scholar of slavery and Reconstruction. “Dr. Johnson, whose grandparents had lived through slavery, took a new direction in her study, finding the history of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Schwalm went on to say that Johnson’s views “were predictably attacked by other scholars whose work she upended,” which … sounds very familiar.

Johnson died in 1995. Her Alma Mater previously honored her with the Lulu Merle Johnson Recruitment Fellowship, which aims to recruit underrepresented students of color to the university’s graduate college.

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