Supervisors to form committee to change namesake of Johnson County

At a work session Monday morning, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors discussed changing the namesake of Johnson County, which is currently named for Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, who was a slaveholder.


Emily Wangen

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors meets on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. The Supervisors discussed budget items for the year.

Rylee Wilson, News Editor

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors will create a committee to find a new namesake for Johnson County, which is currently named after Vice President and slaveholder Richard Mentor Johnson.

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, University of Iowa Special Collections archivist David McCartney wrote an open letter to the board on June 30 advocating for the namesake of the county to be changed to honor Lulu Merle Johnson, the first Black woman to receive a doctorate from the UI. Johnson was the second Black woman in the U.S to earn a doctorate in history. 

Tim Walch, retired director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and an Iowa City resident, suggested the board form a committee of local historians to choose a new Johnson to name the county after. 

“It is fully appropriate now, if it can be facilitated through Iowa code, to change a namesake,” Walch said. “Because what you really want in a name of a county is the aspirations of the people who live in that county.”

Walch said it is unknown if Mentor Johnson was aware of the four or five counties that were named after him. 

Counties in Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Missouri are also named after Richard Mentor Johnson, who Walch said was widely unpopular as vice president. 

“He proved to be a disastrous choice for a job that had no responsibilities,” Walch said. “He was widely disliked … There is not much to speak to his values or credentials, even in the context of the first half of the 19th century.”

Walch said his best guess is that the county was named after Johnson in an effort to appeal to congress or Johnson himself at the time Iowa was trying to earn status as a state in the union. 

“It is important to note that county names were often a sign, casually, and maybe even to some extent, strategically, based on when they came into the union,” Walch said. “Richard Mentor Johnson, who most people have long forgotten – and perhaps for good reason – was chosen as the namesake for Johnson County Iowa, the same way Martin Van Buren received the honor of having a county named for him.”

Leslie Schwalm, Iowa City resident and professor of history and gender women’s and sexuality studies at the UI, also advocated for changing the namesake to Lulu Merle Johnson, whose dissertation studied slavery in the northern U.S. 

“How perfect an opposite figure to Richard Mentor Johnson — someone who actually studied slavery in places like Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin and Iowa,” Schwalm said. “The graduate college at the UI has a graduate fellowship named after her, and the department of gender women’s and sexuality studies has an undergraduate award named after her. We certainly at the university have understood that she’s a notable figure.” 

Changing the name of a county in the U.S. is uncommon, but not unheard of. Bartow County,  Georgia was originally named after Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War Lewis Cass, but the name was changed to honor Confederate politician Francis Bartow in 1861 because of Cass’s support for the Union. Dade County. Florida was changed to Miami-Dade County in 1997.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said it is not clear in the Iowa code or constitution the proper procedure for changing the namesake of a county, though the County Attorney’s office will conduct further research.

As previously reported by the DI, supervisors decided to pursue the route of changing the namesake rather than the name of the county to simplify the legal proceedings involved in removing Richard Mentor Johnson. 

Supervisor Royecann Porter said she is very interested in moving forward with changing the namesake to Lulu Johnson. 

“Just me personally, talking to some of the older Black people in our county, did not know much about Lulu Merle,” Porter said. “To read about it and to see the Black history made us very proud. I just wanted to put it out there that here in Johnson County and at the University of Iowa there are so many African American people doing wonderful things, or have done wonderful things.”

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