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Johnson County, Iowa, Replaces Slaveholder With Pioneering Black Academic As Eponym

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yesterday, Johnson County, Iowa, renamed itself Johnson County. The change was in the first name.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It was originally named for Richard Mentor Johnson, Martin Van Buren's vice president. He was a slaveholder from Kentucky with no personal ties to Iowa. To right that wrong, Johnson County is now named for Lulu Merle Johnson, a history professor who died in 1995.

CHANG: She was born in Gravity, Iowa. Her father had been enslaved. She became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the state at the University of Iowa in Johnson County in 1941. Royceann Porter was on the committee that pushed for and selected the change.

ROYCEANN PORTER: Despite facing discrimination because of her race and gender, she went on to succeed. And, I mean, as a Black woman, we always know that we can have something to look forward to.

CORNISH: Johnson's dissertation was called "The Problem Of Slavery In The Old Northwest," and because of her race, she could not live on campus, nor could she teach at the university. Professor Johnson went on to teach at historically Black colleges before becoming dean of Pennsylvania's Cheyney University.

CHANG: Lisa Green-Douglass, another supervisor on the committee, read the resolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA GREEN-DOUGLASS: Be it resolved that we, the Board of Supervisors of Johnson County, Iowa, shall henceforth recognize as its official eponym Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, 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.

CHANG: It was approved unanimously.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLOTRON VARIATIONS' "WALTZING RIVERBED WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.