Upholding legacies, we can be proud of!
Johnson County, Iowa is renaming itself after a different Johnson, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the state, NPR reports.
Johnson County was given its name by The Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in 1837. The county was named after Richard Mentor Johnson, a slave owner from Kentucky. He served in the House and Senate for over three decades before becoming vice president under former President Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841.
Ron McMullen, ambassador in residence at the University of Iowa, called Richard Mentor Johnson a “despicable person.” More importantly, the cruel slave owner didn’t even have any ties to the state of Iowa. Following the social uprising during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Iowa county board of supervisors began intense discussions to change the county’s name. Royceann Porter, the vice-chair of the board of supervisors, credits University of Iowa archivist David McCartney with bringing a new Johnson’s history to their attention, the history of Lula Merle Johnson.
Johnson was born in 1907 in Gravity, Iowa, a small southwestern town. Her father was born into slavery and worked as a barber, and her mother was the daughter of freed slaves. In 1925, she enrolled at the State University of Iowa, just one of 14 Black women. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there, eventually making history as the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. at the university and in the state in 1941.
The pioneering trailblazer became a professor and historian, working at historically Black colleges and universities when traditionally white schools wouldn’t hire her. Johnson was a professor at Talladega, Tougaloo, Florida A&M, West Virginia State, and a history professor and dean of women and what is now known as Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.
“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,” the board of supervisors wrote in the approved resolution to change the county’s name.
Johnson’s great-niece, Sonya Jackson, has been working hard to preserve her aunt’s legacy and feels like this acknowledgment is a long time coming.
“It’s been about a 30-year journey to get recognition for her. And my family has always felt very strongly given her legacy and what she accomplished at the University of Iowa that she would have been recognized in some powerful way,” said Jackson.
Not only was Johnson the 1st to earn a Ph.D. in Iowa and at the university, but she was also just the 10th Black woman to receive a doctorate from any University in the country. After her retirement in 1971, she traveled extensively before passing away in Delaware in 1995. In 2018, The University of Iowa created a fellowship program in her name, calling Johnson a “trailblazing academic.” Now, her native city will also be named in her honor.
Porter spoke about the significance of the moment, specifically for herself as the only Black member of the county board of supervisors.
“Despite facing discrimination because of her race and gender, she went on to succeed. Just wonderful to hear. To know that, as a Black woman…we always know that we can have something to look forward to,” Porter said.
Thank you for your work, Ms. Lula Merle Johnson. It was not in vain.
Photo Courtesy of Althea Moore, via University of Iowa