Iowa County Named After Slave-Owning Vice President Finally Changes Its Name

Hannah Smith


Iowa County Named After Slave-Owning Vice President Finally Changes Its NameCorcoran Collection (Bequest of Mrs. Benjamin Ogle Tayloe)/The UI Center for Advancement/Facebook

An Iowa county has changed the official origin of its name to honour a Black historian from the state, disavowing its links with a former slave-owning Vice President.

Johnson County will now be named after Lulu Merle Johnson – the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Iowa and second in the United States overall – following a unanimous vote by the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The decisions marks the end of a 186-year link between the county and it’s original namesake, Richard M. Johnson, who served under Martin Van Buren as the ninth Vice President. Johnson had no known links to the state of Iowa, and was a recorded plantation owner who reportedly repeatedly forced himself on enslaved women, fathering at least two children with one.

Lulu Johnson was the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Iowa (University of Iowa)University of Iowa

In an op-ed published last June in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, historian Ron McMullen described Johnson as ‘particularly despicable’ and ‘among the worst vice presidents in American history.’

County supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass said the person chosen to replace him ‘should be somebody of character who represents those values that we hold dear,’ The New York Times reports.

Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson was born and raised in Iowa, and earned her doctorate in American History from the University of Iowa in 1941. Leslie A. Schwalm, a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the university, told the board that despite coming from a prosperous Black family, Dr. Johnson was the first person to be born free on her father’s side, and faced discrimination under state segregation laws during her studies, including being banned from living on campus with her fellow students.

Lulu Johnson with friends at the University of Iowa (African American Historical Museum & Cultural Centre of Iowa)African American Historical Museum & Cultural Centre of Iowa

‘She became part of a group of Black students who really challenged segregation and discrimination in the city and at the university,’ Schwalm said.

Unable to teach in the state due to segregation laws, Dr. Johnson left Iowa after gaining her doctorate to teach history at HBCUs including Florida A&M University and West Virginia State College, and went on to become dean of women’s studies at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. She passed away in 1997, aged 88.

Dr. Johnson’s great niece, Kim Jackson, thanked the board for what she called a ‘great honor for an extraordinary person’.

McMullen told the Board that Dr. Johnson was a ‘positive role model for all of us,’ and noted that by choosing the historian, who was born in Gravity, Iowa, the county could now ‘say that we have an eponym with gravitas’.

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

Topics: News, Iowa, Now


New York Times
  1. New York Times

    An Iowa County Chooses to Be Named for a Black Professor, Not a Slaveowner

Hannah Smith
More like this

Chosen for YouChosen for You


Gypsy Rose's boyfriend carried out his 'sexual fantasy' immediately after murdering her mother

6 hours ago

Most Read StoriesMost Read

Gypsy Rose's family friends issue warning to public as she could leave prison this year

12 hours ago