Johnson County, Iowa, will still operate as Johnson County, but it will take its name from another Johnson — the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the state.
According to NPR, Lulu Merle Johnson was a professor and historian born in 1907 in a small town by the name of Gravity located in southwestern Iowa.
Her father was born into slavery and would go on to work as a barber. Johnson’s mother was the daughter of freed slaves.
During the time of her enrollment at the State University of Iowa in 1925, Johnson was one of 14 Black women at the university. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the university by 1930 before receiving her Ph.D. in 1941.
Johnson was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university, now known as the University of Iowa. According to the university biography, she was the 10th Black woman in the country to receive a doctorate from a university within the states.
“Through her determination to succeed despite discrimination and adversity, [she] embodied the values, ideals, and morals which the people of Johnson County strive to preserve and uphold,” the board of supervisors wrote in the resolution they approved Thursday.
Originally the county was named for Richard Mentor Johnson who was the vice president under President Martin Van Buren.
For decades, Johnson’s great-niece, Sonya Jackson has been working to keep her great-aunt’s legacy alive.
“It’s been about a 30-year journey to get recognition for her,” said Jackson in an interview with NPR. “And my family has always felt very strongly given her legacy and what she accomplished at the University of Iowa that she should have been recognized in some powerful way.”
Johnson County’s vice-chair of the board of supervisors, Royceann Porter, was on the committee involved with making the name change.
Porter is the only Black member of the county board of supervisors and says that Johnson’s story is a personal inspiration.
“Despite facing discrimination because of her race and gender, she went on to succeed,” Porter said. “Just wonderful to hear. To know that, as a Black woman… we always know that we can have something to look forward to.”
Upon retiring in 1971, Johnson spent two decades of her life traveling the world. She passed away in Delaware in 1995.