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Lulu Merle Johnson is the county’s new namesake
Lulu Merle Johnson received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Iowa, becoming the first African-American woman in the state of Iowa to earn a doctorate. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved making her the county’s namesake, replacing Richard Mentor Johnson. (photo found on the University of Iowa’s Graduate College website)

IOWA CITY– Johnson County has a new namesake.
Lulu Merle Johnson, Ph.D., replaces Richard Mentor Johnson as the county’s eponym (namesake) through action by the county board of supervisors during a Wednesday, Sept. 23, work session.
Dr. Johnson (1907-1995) was born in Southwest Iowa and entered the University of Iowa (UI) in 1925 as one of at least 64 black students (14 women).
“The school and the city were rigidly segregated,” her biography provided to the board (co-authored by her niece Sonya Jackson, and Leslie A. Schwalm) stated. “Dormitories were reserved for whites, and black students either boarded with black families in Iowa City, worked part-time as employees in white households, or, if they were young women, lived in the home established by the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s Club on Iowa Avenue.”
She earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in 1930 and pursued her Ph.D. focusing on slavery in the Old Northwest. Her Ph.D. was conferred upon her in 1941. According to her biography, only 10 other black women earned Ph.D.s at that time in American universities. Unable to be hired as a teacher in Iowa, she taught at historically black institutions including Talladega and Tougaloo Colleges. Dr. Johnson also taught at Florida A&M and West Virginia State University before joining the faculty at Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania as a history professor and Dean of Women in 1952. She retired in 1971 to her home in Millsboro, Del., with her longtime partner Eunice Johnson.
Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850) became the county’s eponym when the county was established in 1837, almost a decade before the Iowa Territory became the State of Iowa (1846). At the time, he was vice president (under President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat) and served in the Kentucky Legislature before a 20-year stint in the United States House of Representatives, and a 10-year run in the Senate.
Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, an open, long-term relationship with a female slave and illegitimate children made him problematic for the Democratic party at the time. Being a slave owner made him problematic in the current socially conscious environment.
In June, David F. McCartney sent a letter to the county board of supervisors requesting a change in the county’s namesake, citing Johnson’s societal sins.
“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 UI’s 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.”
He continued, “By renaming Johnson County in her honor, we will recognize an individual who devoted her life to education and to its accessibility. 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.”
In response, an 11-member ad hoc eponym committee was formed to explore a new namesake for the county. The supervisors discussed the recommendations, Lulu Merle Johnson and Sylvanus Johnson, during the Sept. 23 work session.
Sylvanus Johnson (1813-1902) was a brick maker who provided bricks for Plum Grove (home to Governor Robert and First Lady Friendly Lucas), the Old Capitol, and the William Bostick House (first brick house in Iowa City). Sylvanus was one of Iowa City’s first City Council members, sat on the school board, and was a justice of the peace. He also suffered catastrophic financial losses after donating a large sum of money to the Iowa City Female Collegiate Institute, which failed to thrive.
Sylvanus’ obituary states, “…Ther (sic) was a broad liberality in his religion, and it is said of him that he contributed liberally and cheerfully to the erection of every church built in Iowa City, even after the time of his removal to the country (he bought a farm north of Iowa City in 1856). In every sense of the word he was charitable. He remembered that he came to this city penniless and in debt and no case of suffering or need ever appealed in vain to him, nor did he wait for the appeal: if he knew that a man or woman or child needed aid he could give, that was enough…”
Board member Lisa Green-Douglass made the formal recommendation for Lulu Merle Johnson to be the new eponym, followed by a straw poll of the Supervisors expressing support for moving forward with the name change. Chairman Rod Sullivan noted, he was “…very intrigued by Sylvanus. I have to admit he was a gentleman I knew nothing about, and I’m really pleased that I do now. And I hope that moving forward, maybe we can even do something to recognize his contributions to this community, as well.”
Sullivan also suggested creating signage for county buildings and tasked the committee with drawing up plans for an eventual community celebration honoring Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson.