Rename Johnson County, Iowa, in Honor of Lulu Merle Johnson, Ph.D.
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SUMMARY: Petition to rename Johnson County, Iowa, in honor of an outstanding scholar and lifelong educator; instead of a slave-owner
Dear members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors,
Johnson County, Iowa, is named for Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850), a Kentucky slave owner who was Vice President of the U.S. when Iowa became a territory. Iowa City succeeded Burlington in 1839 as the territorial capital during Johnson’s tenure and became its first state capital in 1846.
Writing recently in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Ronald McMullen, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa’s Department of Political Science, noted that one of Johnson’s slaves, a young Black woman, attempted to flee to freedom in Canada. At Johnson’s order, she was captured in Ohio and returned to him in Kentucky, where she endured punishment and resumption of forced servitude.
This is the white man for whom Johnson County, Iowa, is named.
We propose that Johnson County be renamed for a far more worthy individual, also named Johnson.
Lulu Merle Johnson, Ph.D. (1907-1995), was the second African American woman in the U.S. to earn the doctorate degree in history, and the first in Iowa to do so. She was a native of Gravity, Iowa, and graduated from the State University of Iowa in 1941. Her dissertation, "The Problem of Slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787–1858,” is in the University Archives at UI’s Main Library.
Dr. Johnson secured a Rockefeller Foundation grant to support her groundbreaking research. Though she was encouraged and guided by Winfred Root and Harrison John Thornton of the Department of History faculty, she also faced discrimination at SUI. She was not permitted to swim in the Field House pool while whites were using it, and like all Black students at Iowa at the time, she was not permitted to live in a campus dormitory.
Following teaching service at several historically black universities, including Florida A&M, Dr. Johnson joined the faculty at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania in 1952 where she also served as Dean of Women. She died in 1995 at age 88.
Richard Mentor Johnson, a slave owner, is believed to have never set foot in Iowa. By contrast, Lulu Merle Johnson, an Iowa native, contributed to our knowledge of a centuries-long evil and persistent institution.
The intersection of one’s heinous and criminal conduct with another’s discussion addressing this national disgrace presents an opportunity for us all to understand more fully the legacy of slavery.
By renaming Johnson County in her honor, we will recognize an individual who devoted her life to education and to its accessibility. Dr. Johnson’s dissertation revealed the presence of slavery in regions outside the Deep South, a significant contribution to the historical profession at the time. Her persistence in pursuing and fulfilling a career in education is a testament to her lifelong dedication.
Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa, would be appropriately named for an individual who devoted her life to learning, teaching, and research. Let’s rename Johnson County in honor of Lulu Merle Johnson, Ph.D.
Thank you for your kind and thoughtful consideration.
CONTACT: David McCartney, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cc: Lisa Green-Douglass, Pat Heiden, Royceann Porter, Janelle Rettig, Rod Sullivan
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