Iowa County Originally Named for Slaveowner Now Named for Pioneering Black Professor Lulu Merle Johnson

Lulu Merle Johnson

Iowa’s Johnson County, which was originally named after Richard Mentor Johnson, a slave owner, is now named after another Johnson – Lulu Merle Johnson, who was a Black professor and a pioneer in her field. The county’s board of supervisors decided in an unanimous vote on Thursday to change county’s official eponym, according to a press release.

Ms. Johnson was born in Gravity, Iowa in 1907 to a father who was born into slavery. In 1925, she became one of 14 African American women enrolled at State University of Iowa, earning both a bachelor’s and masters degree by 1930, “despite facing open discrimination because of her race and gender,” the board said.

She later taught at the school while continuing her education and became first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university. Johnson taught history at historically black colleges and universities and was the dean of women at Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania.

The school, now called the University of Iowa, recognized Johnson in 2017 by naming the Lulu Merle Johnson Fellowship in her honor. The annual recruitment fellowship funds underrepresented minority Ph.D. students, according to a news release.

Lena M. Hill, the university’s interim chief diversity officer and associate vice president, said that when Johnson earned her doctorate in 1941, Black students weren’t allowed to live in the residence halls at the school.

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SOURCE: CBS News, Caitlin O’Kane