Iowa’s most liberal county is no longer named for a slave-owning U.S. vice president and instead will honor a trailblazing local Black academic.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to cut ties with its two-century namesake, former Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson, a lifelong slave owner from Kentucky who took credit for killing a Shawnee chief during an 1805 battle.
The Wisconsin Territorial Legislature named the county after Johnson in 1837, when he was serving under President Martin Van Buren, years before Iowa became state. Johnson had no personal ties to the county.
Supervisors decided the county is now named for the late historian and university administrator Lulu Merle Johnson, a native of Gravity, Iowa, whose father was born into slavery. She was one of the only African American women enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1925 and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history by 1930 despite facing open discrimination.
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She later served as a University of Iowa professor and became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from the university in 1941, writing a dissertation related to slavery. Over the next three decades, she worked as a professor and academic at historically Black colleges and became a dean at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. She died in 1995.
Johnson County, home to the university and some fast-growing suburbs, is a liberal outlier in increasingly Republican-leaning Iowa. Joe Biden got nearly 71% of the county vote in 2020, despite losing the state to Donald Trump by 8 percentage points.
Supervisors had started the process of changing eponyms last year, after protests against racial injustice across the U.S.The resolution passed Thursday said that Richard Mentor Johnson “does not embody the values, ideals and morals of the people of Johnson County," who oppose slavery and are committed to racial justice.
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It said that Lulu Merle Johnson was an “inspirational woman whose story of accomplishment in the face of adversity is one of which the citizens of Johnson County can be proud for generations to come.”
“Today was touching and I am so happy,” said Supervisor Royceann Porter, the only Black person on the five-member panel.