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Reconciling the sins of the past

Johnson County Supervisors discuss the origins of Johnson County
Oct. 5, 1813, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh meets his end at the hands of Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson during the Battle of the Thames, Ontario, Canada, while fighting for the British in the War of 1812. (Original artwork: Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier)

IOWA CITY– In his play “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
In Johnson County, Iowa, however, some are hoping the county will still smell as sweet under a new namesake.
Recent social unrest fueled by protests against racism has led to statues and monuments, mostly related to the Civil War, being damaged, destroyed or taken down. Several national food products are seeing changes to their branding, eliminating trademark personas such as Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima due to connections with slavery.
The current societal climate has also led to the examination of other potential ties to slavery, discrimination and racism toward black Americans and other people of color.
Johnson County was established in 1837, almost a decade before the Iowa Territory became the State of Iowa (1846). The county was named after then-vice president Richard Mentor Johnson.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Johnson was born in 1780 near Louisville, Va. (now in Kentucky), and died in 1850 in Frankfort, Ky. He was the ninth vice president of the United States (1837-1841) under Democratic President Martin Van Buren. He was elected to the Kentucky Legislature in 1804 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1807 where he served for 20 years before serving in the Senate for another decade.
Johnson drew opposition within his party, and has become problematic in the current social consciousness, due to an “open, long-term relationship with a female slave, by whom the unmarried Johnson had two children.”
In late June, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors received a letter from David F. McCartney, of Iowa City, who took issue with Johnson and his history, in particular with being a documented slave owner. “This is the white man for whom Johnson County, Iowa, is named,” McCartney wrote. “I propose that Johnson County be renamed for a far more worthy individual, also named Johnson.”
McCartney suggested the county be renamed in honor of Lulu Merle Johnson, Ph.D., the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate degree in history, and as he noted, the first in Iowa to do so. “She was a native of Gravity, Iowa, and graduated from the State University of Iowa in 1941,” McCartney wrote. A dissertation by Johnson, “The Problem of Slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787-1858” is in the University of Iowa’s (UI) Main Library, he added.
“Richard Mentor Johnson, a slave owner, is believed to have never set foot in Iowa,” he wrote. “By contrast, Lulu Merle Johnson, an Iowa native, contributed to our knowledge of a centuries-long evil and persistent institution.
“By renaming Johnson County in her honor, we will recognize an individual who devoted her life to education and to its accessibility,” he continued. “Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa, would be appropriately named for an individual who devoted her life to learning, teaching and research. Let’s rename Johnson County in honor of Lulu Merle Johnson, Ph.D.”
The supervisors addressed McCartney’s letter during their Wednesday, July 8, work session with a proposal to change the county’s namesake.
Just prior to the start of the meeting, Chair Rod Sullivan noted there have been instances of a county changing its namesake, citing “the most high-profile case” being in King County, Wash., which was named for Rufus King, a Confederate and Alabama Senator during the Civil War. The county was renamed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with a vote approving the change held in 1986, but it wasn’t actually made official until the state’s governor approved it in 2005.
In addressing the proposal, Sullivan cited a letter to the editor in the “Iowa City Press-Citizen,” which was followed by an online petition with between 500-600 signatures.
“By deciding to take this up, there are several questions,” Sullivan said. First, he said the county attorney’s office would weigh in on the legality of such a change, and what, if anything, the process would be, leaving the board with two questions.
“Do you want to pursue this?” he asked. “And, if we want to pursue this, how do we pursue this?”
County Attorney Janet Lyness, via telephone, said she felt it would take extensive research, and stated what little research she had already conducted showed the Iowa Code and Iowa Constitution was not clear on such a process. But, if the board was interested, she vowed to do more extensive research and pursue any necessary legal avenues to make it happen.
Sullivan then turned to several members of the public, who had called in to address the topic. He prefaced the discussion by noting, “One of the things, I think, that when this sort of thing comes up is, people are a little unsure ‘is this the right way to go in terms of history?’ You hear about ‘erasing history,’ and this is in some ways akin to the Confederate flag, or monuments.” Sullivan called on Tim Walch, the retired Director of the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch. County names, Walch said, were often assigned casually, “and in some cases strategically, based on when they came into the Union. And Richard Mentor Johnson, who most people have long forgotten, and perhaps for good reason, was chosen as the namesake for Johnson County just the way Martin Van Buren received the honor of having a county named for him.” Many other counties in Iowa have received those kinds of namesakes, Walch said, including prominent senators or public figures. “It is wholly appropriate now, if it can be facilitated through Iowa Code, to change a namesake because what you really want in the name of a county is the aspirations of the people who live in that county.” He pointed out it is unknown if Johnson was even ever aware of the four or five counties, which had been named after him. “It’s an appropriate historical activity (to change the namesake),” he said, recommending a study committee be formed to consider possible names, “Its worth studying,” Walch said.
Leslie Schwalm, a professor of history and gender and women’s sexuality studies at the UI, called in and stated Dr. Johnson would be an ideal choice to supplant Richard Mentor Johnson. “In this day and age, I think it is very important to pay attention to our history,” she said. “How perfect an opposite figure to Richard Mentor Johnson.”
Supervisor Pat Heiden said there was no question in her mind that Richard Mentor Johnson is not an appropriate namesake for Johnson County. “It is important for us to name someone who better represent our values. So, I absolutely support us continuing this discussion.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig, participating by phone, corrected Sullivan’s statement that the discussion started with the aforementioned letter to the editor, but instead began “four or five years ago” when Sullivan read a book about Richard Mentor Johnson. “You started talking about it,” Rettig said acknowledging a “media firestorm” at the time, and Sullivan’s recent comments about the initiative having not been well received at the time. “It never appeared on our agenda at the time, but I think this is a really important discussion.”
Supervisor Royceann Porter, also by phone, said the local black community immediately started researching Richard Mentor Johnson when they first heard of his history. “Just talking with some of the older black people in our county, they did not know much about Lulu Merle Johnson, and to read about her and see the black history made us proud for anybody who makes the recommendation.”
Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass, by phone, said she was, “absolutely in favor of kicking Richard Mentor Johnson out of the namesake position.” Green-Douglass added she, too, has been reading up on Lulu Merle Johnson, and was impressed by her. She agreed with the consensus of an ad hoc committee to explore different Johnsons, but noted “Right now, that would be my pick.” The first step, she said, should be to remove Richard Mentor Johnson as namesake as soon as possible, even if it means not having one for a period of time.
Sullivan expressed his thoughts, including his dismay that during the campaigns of the era, Johnson was introduced as “having killed the most native people, of anybody (Johnson was a colonel with the British Army during the War of 1812),” to loud applause, “Which is hard to imagine in this day and age.” He had reached out to Professor Jackie Rand, a Native American, who responded back in a manner he felt was appropriate, but not necessarily what he had expected. In summary, Rand told Sullivan if they’re not going to change it (the name) back to what it was named by the people from whom it was stolen from, then it is a futile exercise.
“It reminds me that we do in fact live in a place that, whatever it’s named, was literally stolen away from the many people that were here,” Sullivan said. “And that’s a part of our history, too.”
He asked for a supervisor to step forward and draft a list of criteria for the full board to approve ahead of appointing a commission. Green-Douglass and Porter volunteered.
Sullivan said he was in favor of the commission approach rather than putting it to a public vote. “I think you would end up with Boaty McBoatface Johnson probably as your namesake. We’ve seen that happen in other places. So, while I appreciate public input, and if we’re going to do something, we should have a public hearing, I’m not sure about the idea of a public vote.”

“It is wholly appropriate now, if it can be facilitated through Iowa Code, to change a namesake because what you really want in the name of a county is the aspirations of the people who live in that county.”
– Tim Walch, retired Director of the Hoover Presidential Library

“In this day and age, I think it is very important to pay attention to our history.”
– Leslie Schwalm, Professor, University of Iowa