On June 24, 2021, Johnson County, Iowa did something counties rarely do. Originally named for the ninth Vice President of the United States, Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841), the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to change our county’s eponym (namesake), placing Lulu Merle Johnson (1907-1995) into that lofty position. Johnson was a BA and MA graduate of The University of Iowa (1930), the second African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in History, and the first to receive a Doctorate of any kind in Iowa!
Lulu M. Johnson (left) with members of her Sunday School class in Gravity, Iowa – circa 1920.
Lulu M. Johnson was born into a successful farm family on September 14, 1907 in the small southwestern Iowa town of Gravity. The Johnsons were the only Black family in town, and highly respected. Lulu’s father, Richard, was a freed slave who rented out his land – which had been in the family since 1882 – while working as a barber in his own shop in town. Her mother, Jemimah, was the daughter of freed slaves.
The Johnson family moved to Clinton for Lulu’s senior year of high school, where she captained the Clinton High School 6-on-6 girls basketball team. After graduating in 1925, Lulu headed off to SUI, where her family already had strong connections. Her brother Roscoe was a student, and her nephew, Bud (Dick) Culberson (below left), was the first African American to play basketball for the Hawkeyes (1944-1946), helping break the color barrier in the Big Ten. Another family member, Duke Slater (below right), is a Hawkeye football legend (1918-1921), who is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the NFL’s most accomplished early African American players. Click here to read more about Duke Slater.
When Lulu arrived on campus at SUI in 1925, she was one of only fourteen Black women attending here, along with fifty men. Sadly, Iowa City and the university were rigidly segregated at the time, so Johnson could live only in an apartment – 942 Iowa Avenue – with other African American students. On-campus housing was strictly segregated as well, and so were most shops and restaurants.
But Lulu was a woman with a strong backbone to match her strong character. Right away she challenged the discrimination she faced here in Iowa City. In a military science class, Lulu and other Black students decided to sit in the front row – seats that had been assigned to white students, raising their hands with answers at the ready whenever the instructor asked a question.
Undoubtedly, at every turn, Lulu and her friends faced discrimination as students of color. One story Johnson liked to tell was how she was forced to enroll in a swimming class as a requirement for her Ph.D. even though it had nothing to do with her thesis. Because of racism, Johnson wasn’t allowed to swim when white students were in the pool, so she informed her instructor that she would do her class time at 5 a.m! For Lulu, making this injustice into a big inconvenience for her instructor was one small victory she could most certainly celebrate!
A brilliant scholar, Lulu earned both a BA degree (1929) and a Master’s degree (History) from SUI (1930), After graduation, she had difficulty finding a teaching job, as most colleges and universities refused to hire Black teachers at the time. She spent her career teaching history and politics at historically Black colleges and universities instead: Talladega (1930-31), Tougaloo (1931-40). In 1940, Lulu returned to Iowa City to earn her Doctorate (1941) with a thesis entitled, “The Problem of Slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787–1858.”
“The study of slavery was a field then dominated by white scholars who portrayed slavery as beneficial to people of African descent, arguing that enslaved people were kindly treated,” says Leslie Schwalm, professor of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at Iowa. “Dr. Johnson, whose grandparents had lived through slavery, took a new direction in her study, finding the history of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
After her years at Iowa, Johnson went on to become an esteemed educator while researching the lives of African Americans, teaching at Florida A&M and West Virginia State College, before joining the faculty of Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania as a history professor and dean of women in 1952. Throughout her lifetime, Lulu was an activist against segregationist policies. In the 1940’s, for example, she joined with a group of SUI alumni, leading a campaign to desegregate our university’s residence halls, which finally happened in 1946.
Many of Lulu’s family members still live in and around Des Moines today, and they describe her as “persnickety,” a strict disciplinarian with a sense of humor. Growing up, Kim Jackson and her sister Sonya, both graduates of The University of Iowa, spent nearly every summer with Aunt Lulu. They quickly discovered her love of words.
“People need to know how brilliant she was. She had an incredible mind and was a great storyteller,” Kim says. “At her funeral, a former student from Cheyney State said Dr. Johnson was a tough lady, but she cared. She pushed students to strive for academic excellence.”
Since Lulu believed watching television would ruin your mind, she played a game that would expand her nieces’ vocabulary. Sonya and Kim picked words in the dictionary, and Lulu would define every word verbatim. “When I first saw her do it, I thought it was a crazy party trick. Her vocabulary was so expansive,” says Sonya Jackson, who lives in Chicago.
Aunt Lulu also demanded that words be used properly in conversation in her presence. “As kids, we couldn’t even say, ‘I am full’ when we finished eating,” Sonya says. “Aunt Lulu would say garbage cans get full, people have enough. (And) If we said, ‘Where’s it at?’ – she would respond, ‘Behind that preposition.’”
Lulu’s nephew, John Jackson, told the Johnson County Board of Supervisors about one family member who wanted to write Lulu a letter but hesitated because she was afraid Lulu just might grade the paper and return it for more homework!
A longtime member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Lulu Johnson retired in 1971 to the seaside community of Millsboro, Delaware, where she died on October 19, 1995 at the age of 88. She is buried back home in Washington Cemetery in Gravity, Iowa.
Welcome back home to Iowa, Dr. Lulu M. Johnson – a life well lived!
As I See It – a brief editorial opinion concerning the eponym (namesake) change of Johnson County, Iowa on June 24, 2021.
Iowa law makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to change the name of one of its 99 counties. Especially so, since Johnson County actually appears in the Iowa Constitution – a document written in 1857 and still in effect today. So, on September 23, 2020, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, after thorough research into the historical records, proposed that our county replace its eponym (a decision that needs no state approval) with a different “Johnson” than the original person chosen. Back in 1837, when Johnson County, Iowa came into existence, heroes were chosen in ways most Americans today would not agree with. So it is with Richard M. Johnson, the ninth Vice President of the United States, (1837-1841).
On June 24, 2021, after several months of discussion amongst the residents of our fair county, the Board voted unanimously to make it all official – placing Lulu Merle Johnson (1907-1995) into this lofty position.
Quite honestly, as an Iowa historian, I like this move.
As I see it, Richard M. Johnson, while Vice President of the United States when our county came into existence (1837), truly had no real connection with our county, state, or even the region. Why his name was chosen in the first place, no one really knows. Some believe that his claim to have killed more Native Americans than any other white man was the primary reason he was first elected to office. If indeed, that’s true, the fact is that we no longer live in a society that views such things as a badge of honor, but quite honestly, just the opposite. Secondly, there’s no record of Johnson, a Kentucky native, ever setting foot in Wisconsin Territory and/or Iowa Territory, nor did he ever express any interest in doing so. Johnson was a southern slaveholder, which, in my mind, doesn’t necessarily disqualify him, but history does clearly show that he did have an ongoing relationship with one of his slaves. Julia Chinn bore Johnson two children and died of cholera in 1833, after which he buried her in an unmarked grave, leaving Julia largely forgotten to history. Clearly, in a state that stood strongly for the freedom of slaves two decades before the Civil War, and a county where many now believe that the atrocities committed toward our Native American brothers and sisters was truly wrong, the decision to demote Richard M. Johnson, while honoring Iowa’s native daughter, Lulu M. Johnson, is not only refreshing, but the right one, as well. MJB
I feel strongly in her accomplishment and it is great for her to be recognized. (Lulu) was a tremendous person and leader. . . a trailblazer and her story needs to be told. Sonya Jackson, Lulu Merle Johnson’s great niece
Lulu Johnson’s farm-to-faculty experience exemplifies Johnson County’s unique contribution to the state, an opportunity for a world-class education as well as professional and occupational mobility. Leslie Schwalm, Professor, University of Iowa
By renaming Johnson County in her honor, we will recognize an individual who devoted her life to education and to its accessibility. David McCartney, UI Libraries’ Special Collection
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.