Johnson County now named after the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D from UI, Lulu Merle Johnson

Johnson County was named after an enslaver and former Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson; but after a vote on June 24 the Board of Supervisors changed namesake of the county recognize Lulu Merle Johnson.


Contributed Photo. Used by permission of John I. Jackson on Wednesday, June, 30, 2021. Jackson is the nephew of Ms. Johnson.

Emily Delgado, News Reporter

Lulu Merle Johnson made history as the first Black woman to hold a Ph.D from the University of Iowa and in the state of Iowa. Now, the county where she spent her time studying, Johnson County, has made her its namesake.

At the time of her enrollment at the UI, she was among the first of 14 Black women to be enrolled at the university.

Despite the discrimination she faced as a Black woman in the 20th century, she received both her bachelors and master degree by 1930, as said in the official announcement by the Board of Supervisors. She went on to be the 10th Black woman to earn her Ph.D at a U.S. university.

“I think it’s great for the university because it highlights the fact that we had some really important Black students here early in the 20th century and people who went on to be very accomplished,” said Leslie Schwalm, a professor of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies.

Johnson was born in Gravity, Iowa. Her father was born into slavery and her mother was a daughter of freed enslaved people.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted to change the namesake of the county on June 24. The Board of Supervisors said that because of her determination to succeed, Johnson embodies the values and ideals of the people of Johnson County strive to uphold.

Schwalm agrees with the Board of Supervisors’ statement.

“I think this is great, especially because from my perspective, Professor Johnson represents everything that is great about Johnson County and the university, especially this farm to faculty, you know transformation. To me that’s just what the University of Iowa is all about, is opening up opportunities,” Schwalm said.

Johnson County was previously named after Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. He was an enslaver who had no ties to Iowa, being born in Kentucky. He had an ongoing relationship with a woman, Julia Chinn, that he enslaved, upon her death, Johnson buried her in an unmarked grave, leaving her lost to history.

“If our county is going to be named for somebody, it should be named for somebody where they got that recognition, and not for a former slave owner. It’s as simple as that,” David McCartney, University Archivist said.

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The vehicle for petitioning to change the namesake of the county came from McCartney, who started an online petition drive that gathered more than one thousand signatures.

“I knew there were many people to support this idea and it just happened in my work here as university archivist,” McCartney said.  “I’m very, very fortunate to learn about some amazing history of our institution and not long after I started here, way back in 2001, I became acquainted with a number of historical as well as contemporary figures here at the university, and one name that stood out to me at the time was the world Johnson.”

McCarteny said that he wishes he could have met with Johnson over coffee to hear about her life.

UI honors Johnson by naming a fellowship that is awarded to historically underrepresented groups at the university, meant to embrace the diversity of all students.

Dean Shelly Campo is a dean for the Graduate College at UI. She said that the Lulu Merle Johnson Fellowship is one of the only fellowships in the Graduate College with a name.

Campo thinks that Johnson should be an inspiration to everyone at UI.

“I think she’s an incredible success story. She had to endure incredible hardship and made a significant impact in her field,” Campo said.

Editor’s note: The contributed photo above was originally published without proper attribution. The cutline has been updated. The DI regrets the error. 

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