Johnson County in Iowa was originally named for Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as vice president under President Martin Van Buren. He enslaved people and fathered children with a woman who he enslaved. He served in Congress for 30 years and in 1837 was elected vice president of the United States.
Johnson County officials no longer wanted the county to honor a former slaveowner. But instead of changing the name of the county, they have decided to choose another Johnson to honor as the county’s namesake. And it is not Lyndon Baines Johnson who ushered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress.
Henceforth, Johnson County will honor Lulu Merle Johnson, who was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Iowa. Dr. Johnson was a native of Gravity in southwestern Iowa. 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 what is now the University of Iowa in 1925, she was one of 14 Black women at the university. She completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees and earned and her Ph.D. in 1941.
Despite her Ph.D., Dr. Johnson was unable to secure a faculty job in Iowa. Instead, she taught at Talladega College in Alabama, Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Florida A&M University, and West Virginia State University. In 1952, she joined the faculty and was dean of women at what is now Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Johnson retired from teaching in 1971. She died in Delaware in 1995.
In announcing the “renaming” of the county to honor Lulu Merle Johnson, the board of supervisors stated that “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.”