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County named for slave owner now named after a Black professor

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Iowa’s Johnson County, which was originally named after Richard Mentor Johnson, a slave owner, is now named after another Johnson – Lulu Merle Johnson, who was a Black professor and a pioneer in her field. The county’s board of supervisors decided in an unanimous vote on Thursday to change county’s official eponym, according to a press release.

Ms. Johnson was born in Gravity, Iowa in 1907 to a father who was born into slavery. In 1925, she became one of 14 African American women enrolled at State University of Iowa, earning both a bachelor’s and masters degree by 1930, “despite facing open discrimination because of her race and gender,” the board said.

She later taught at the school while continuing her education and became first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university. Johnson taught history at historically black colleges and universities and was the dean of women at Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania. 

The school, now called the University of Iowa, recognized Johnson in 2017 by naming the Lulu Merle Johnson Fellowship in her honor. The annual recruitment fellowship funds underrepresented minority Ph.D. students, according to a news release.

Lena M. Hill, the university’s interim chief diversity officer and associate vice president, said that when Johnson earned her doctorate in 1941, Black students weren’t allowed to live in the residence halls at the school.

“Notwithstanding such discrimination, students of color like Ms. Johnson shared their brilliance with our institution and contributed to making the UI who we are today,” Hill said at the team.

Johnson’s nephew, John Jackson, said that when she graduated, she wasn’t able to teach in Iowa. “She received a quality education from U of I, but wasn’t able to get employment in her home state because of the color of her skin,” he said. 

Originally, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature named the county after Richard Mentor Johnson in 1837. He was a lifelong slave owner and took credit for killing Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1805, according to the board.

“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.”


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