We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. A woman whose achievements shaped an Iowa county recently received a posthumous honor. According to NPR, Johnson County was renamed after Black educator and historian Lulu Merle Johnson.
Johnson—a native of southwestern Iowa—came from a lineage of trailblazers. Her father Richard, who was born into slavery, stepped into the world of entrepreneurship after being freed. He owned land and a barbershop. Her family rose to prominence in the farming industry. Johnson evolved into a leader in her own right. In 1925, she enrolled at the University of Iowa where she was one of less than 20 Black women students. While navigating her collegiate journey she endured discriminatory experiences that stemmed from segregation, but she bravely and boldly fought against the injustices. Her and other Black students would sit in seats assigned for white students. She also fought to ensure that Black students could participate in swimming tests and later spearheaded an effort to have campus residence halls desegregated.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the school and in 1941 made history by becoming the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the state of Iowa. She went on to teach at HBCUs that include Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Florida A&M, West Virginia State, Talladega College and Tougaloo College. Dr. Johnson’s work explored the history of slavery and how it impacted regions beyond the South.
The county, which was initially named after Former Vice President of the United States Richard Mentor Johnson, will now bear the name of Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson. Sonya Jackson, Johnson’s great niece, says she and her family are grateful to see her legacy being recognized. “It’s been about a 30-year journey to get recognition for her,” she said in a statement, according to the news outlet. “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.”
This isn’t the only honor that Dr. Johnson has received. Three years ago, her alma mater named a fellowship program after her.