Community members call for change to the namesake of Johnson County amid anti-racism movement

Johnson County, Iowa has bore the name of former U.S. Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson since 1937. Part of a recent push for social change and racial justice has locals considering change to the namesake.


Shivansh Ahuja

The Johnson County Courthouse in Iowa City is seen on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

Iowa City community members are urging Johnson County residents and local leaders to reconsider the namesake of Johnson County. Currently named for former U.S. Vice President and slave owner Richard Mentor Johnson, the county was established in his name in 1837.

The initiative to change the Johnson County namesake comes amid current political and social unrest over racial injustice in the U.S.

“Richard Mentor Johnson and Johnson County, Iowa today, are a terrible fit,” Ron McMullen, the University of Iowa’s Ambassador in-residence, said. “Johnson County prides itself on being tolerant and inclusive and progressive, and Richard Mentor Johnson I think is a despicable namesake for a county full of people that see themselves as tolerant and progressive and forward thinking.”

The Iowa native and former diplomat recently wrote an op-ed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen expressing his beliefs that the county needs to change its namesake.

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McMullen wrote in the column that Johnson was a Kentucky lawyer and plantation owner. Additionally, Johnson fathered two children with inherited slave Julia Chinn, and after she died preyed upon another slave named Cornelia Parthene.

McMullen, who served as a diplomat in South Africa during the nation’s transition from an apartheid regime to a nonracial democracy, said he originally research about the namesake issue when he moved to Johnson County.

During his time in South Africa, McMullen said the nation changed several names of places and objects from heroes of apartheid to noncontroversial, straightforward names.

“Every situation should be dependent upon the people involved, and so if people in Johnson County, Iowa today feel that Richard Mentor Johnson is not a good namesake for our county, then why should we be stuck with this person who was a slave owner who abused his female slaves, who made political gains on killing the Shawnee chief…and was such a rotten vice president that he took a nine month leave of office to go run a tavern?” McMullen said. “There’s just nothing very worthy about the guy and certainly a bad match with Johnson County now. So, the question arises, where do you draw the line?”

McMullen said he thinks the line should be drawn locally, and that it’s up to the people of Johnson County. He asked, “If not now, when?”

Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan initially proposed changing Johnson County’s namesake in 2017.

“I think to say it was not well received is an understatement,” Sullivan said.

He was inspired to propose the change after reading a book that went into great detail about Richard Mentor Johnson, Sullivan said.

Changing the actual name of the county would be a “nightmare,” Sullivan added. A name change would require burdensome bureaucratic and legal work for both county and state officials. But changing the namesake to honor a different individual would just take action from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

No action should be taken lightly, Sullivan said, but if people read a lot about Richard Mentor Johnson they might not agree with everything — or much — of what he stood for.

“I’m sure to some people it’s not a very important issue, and in some ways I agree — I’m more about getting food on people’s tables and that sort of thing,” Sullivan said. “But I think the one thing the Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us is that we need to question some of the status quo, and this is one of those things that’s just been pretty unquestioned for 150 years and maybe deserves another look.”

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UI Librarian David McCartney wrote an open letter to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and created an online petition on to change the county’s namesake from Richard Mentor Johnson to another individual — Lulu Merle Johnson — on June 30.

Lulu Merle Johnson, born in 1907, was an Iowa native and the second Black woman in the nation and first in the state to earn a doctorate degree in history, as well as the first Black woman to receive any doctorate from the University of Iowa.

She went on to teach history at several historically Black colleges and became the Dean of Women at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, where she also taught history until her retirement in 1971.

As of Thursday evening, the petition to rededicate Johnson County to Lulu Johnson has more than 350 signatures of the 500-signature goal.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, McCartney said he was inspired to create the letter and petition after suggesting the idea on his Facebook page and receiving strong interest and support.

“The intersection of one’s heinous and criminal conduct with another’s discussion addressing this national disgrace presents an opportunity for us all to understand more fully the legacy of slavery,” his letter states. “By renaming Johnson County in her honor, we will recognize an individual who devoted her life to education and to its accessibility.”