The Johnson County Board of Supervisors in Iowa City, Iowa, on June 24 (Thursday) voted unanimously to change the county’s name from that of a slave owner to that of a Black professor, a pioneer in education.
The county is now named in honor of Lulu Merle Johnson. It was originally named for Richard Mentor Johnson, a long-time slave owner who took credit for the murder of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames in 1805, according to CBS News.
"We recognize that place-names embody the identity and cultural values of a place. For that reason, it is important to establish an eponym of Johnson County who represents what is important to the people who live here," Lisa Green-Douglass, Board of Supervisors member, tells the television news outlet. "It has been a privilege to chair the Johnson County Eponym Committee, and to be able to recognize, honor, and establish Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson as the County's official eponym."
Johnson was a pioneer in both the state of Iowa, and in the development of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where she taught history and served as the dean of women at Cheyney State University in Pennsylvania.
Born in Gravity, Iowa, the educator was the first of fourteen African American women to be enrolled at the University of Iowa. After graduating with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1930, Johnson remained at the school, teaching while working towards her Ph.D., which she earned in 1941. In doing so, she became the first Black woman to earn a Ph. D. at the University of Iowa, despite facing racism and sexism from students and school administration, the report notes.
Before Johnson County officials voted on the new name, Johnson’s alma mater in 2017 established the Lulu Merle Johnson Fellowship in her honor. "Notwithstanding such discrimination, students of color like Ms. Johnson shared their brilliance with our institution and contributed to making the UI who we are today," Iowa’s interim Chief Diversity Officer Lena M. Hill tells CBS News.