Johnson County is named for Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson who was born in 1907 in Gravity, Iowa, to a father who was born into slavery. She became a student at the State University of Iowa (University of Iowa) in 1925 at a time when she was one of only 14 African-American women enrolled at the university. She earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree by 1930, despite facing open discrimination because of her race and gender. From 1931 to 1941, Lulu Merle Johnson was a professor at the State University of Iowa while working toward her Ph.D. In 1941, she became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University. From 1931 until her retirement in 1971, she maintained an active career as a professor and academic. She taught history at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and was the Dean of Women at Cheyney State University (Cheyney University) in Cheyney, Pennsylvania.
Until the late 1830s the area known today as Johnson County was wilderness and a hunting ground for the Fox and Sac Nation. Between 1832 and 1837 Indigenous Peoples were stripped of their lands by treaty. Soon settlers began to move into the county. The county was established in 1837. By 1838 there were two towns competing for the county seat--Osceola and Napoleon. An Act of the Wisconsin Assembly selected Napoleon as the county seat on June 22, 1838. A two-story log cabin courthouse was then constructed at Napoleon.
When the First Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa met at Burlington a bill was approved to locate the seat of government for the Territory of Iowa. The site was to be within the boundaries of Johnson County, and it was to be named Iowa City. Three commissioners met and selected a site two miles north of Napoleon on May 1, 1839.
On December 31, 1839, an Act was passed to relocate the county seat of Johnson County with orders to keep present and future populations in mind. The site of the new county seat was easily chosen as Iowa City, the "capital" of the Iowa Territory. In January 1855, the Fifth General Assembly voted to move the state capital to Des Moines.
The first courthouse built in Iowa City was a temporary two-story structure constructed of bricks. This courthouse burned to the ground in 1856. In 1857 this building was replaced by another courthouse, which was insured for $30,000. This brick building was used until 1899, when it was condemned.
The cornerstone of the present courthouse was laid on December 2, 1899. It was constructed by James Rowson and Son at a cost of $135,000. Bands, balloons and a parade were part of the dedication ceremonies held on June 8, 1901.
Johnson County is currently composed of 11 cities: Iowa City, Coralville, Lone Tree, Tiffin, Oxford, North Liberty, Shueyville, University Heights, Hills, Swisher, Solon and a subdivision of West Branch. Johnson County is home to more than 100,000 Iowans and a wide variety of businesses, including farming, retail, manufacturing and academics.
The county government's responsibilities range from roads and bridges to human services, law enforcement, parks and natural resources. Iowa City is the seat of Johnson County and, as such, many of the county government offices are located there.
The River sculpture