Lulu Merle Johnson was pioneer in education and the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the state of Iowa. Born on September 14, 1907 in Gravity, Iowa to Jeanette (Burton) and Richard Johnson, her mother was the daughter of freed slaves, and her father, who was formerly enslaved, owned and operated his own barbershop. The family were the only Black residents in the town and were highly respected.
Johnson’s family moved to eastern Iowa when she was entering her senior year. In 1925, she graduated from Clinton High School, where she was captain of the girls’ basketball team. After graduation, Johnson enrolled at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa). Out of over 2,000 students, there were only 64 Black students–14 women and 50 men. University housing was segregated, so Johnson and the other Black students had to reside in off-campus housing.
Lulu Johnson obtained all three of her degrees from the University of Iowa. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in history in 1929, followed one year later by a master’s. Throughout the 1930s, Johnson worked on a doctorate in American history. She received support from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Johnson, a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, challenged the university’s racial structure. As an undergraduate, she insisted on sitting in front row seats assigned to white students in her political science class. As a graduate student, she protested the university’s pool policies. All University of Iowa students were required to pass a swimming test. The university was willing to let Johnson as well as the other Black students waive the test in order to keep them out of the pool, so they would not have to drain and refill it for the white students. Johnson and the other students informed their instructor that they would attend class at 5:00 am and take the swimming test, making the pool unusable for the remainder of the school day. Her action ended the university’s racially-discriminatory pool policy.
In 1941, Lula Merle Johnson became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Her thesis was “The Problem of Slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787-1858.” She held academic appointments at a number of HBCU’s, including Talladega University in Alabama; Tougaloo College in Mississippi; Florida A&M; and West Virginia State College. In 1952, she accepted a position at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania, where she was a history professor and dean of women. Dr. Johnson retired from Cheyney State as the director of the Department of Social and Behavioral Science. She moved to Millsboro, Delaware and spent the remainder of her life traveling with her partner, Eunice Johnson. She died on October 18, 1995, at the age of 88.
In 2018, the Graduate College at the University of Iowa established the Lulu Merle Johnson Fellowship, which provides funding and support for Ph.D. students from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups. On June 24, 2021, the Johnson County (Iowa) Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to change the county’s name to Lulu Merle Johnson County. The county was originally named for Vice President Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841), a slaveholder who never resided in Iowa and claimed credit for killing Shawnee Chief Tecumseh during the War of 1812. Lulu Merle Johnson County is only the second in the nation named after an African American. (The other is Martin Luther King County in Washington.) The University of Iowa, where Lulu Johnson received her education, is the county seat of Johnson County.