Posted on 09/02/2014

Photo taken on July 20, 1941

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Lulu Merle Johnson
African American Woman
Ground breaker
Ph.D. in History
1st black woman to receive doctorate
From Univ of Iowa
Bio written lovingly by great niece

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Photo replaced on September  2, 2014
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Headline accompanying photo read: First Negress Candidate for Ph.D. in Iowa

Headline accompanying photo read: First Negress Candidate for Ph.D. in Iowa
Photo: Daily Iowan, July 20, 1941.

Growing up, I spent every summer with my great aunt Lulu Merle Johnson (1907 - 1995), who was my grandmother’s older sister. While I didn’t know it at the time, those summer days spent by her side would wind up shaping the woman I am today and my dreams about the person I will become.

Aunt Lulu was the first African American to receive a doctorate from the University of Iowa, and the 13th African-American woman in the U.S. to receive a doctorate. Her degree was conferred in History, which was another first for an African-American woman.

As a child, I never fully understood the magnitude of her accomplishments. To me, she was my eccentric and persnickety aunt who believed that television would ruin your mind and that when a star falls, someone dies. She taught me how to crab from the pier of her house in Millsboro, Delaware using a net, a weight and a fish head; how to cook and orchestrate a perfect dinner party with precision and impeccable timing, and how to laugh to keep from crying.

She made me read the dictionary “for fun” and she could recite verbatim the definition of any word I would randomly pick. For her, that accomplishment carried more pride than being the first at anything. She taught me you don’t have to be loud to be heard, if you want something you work hard to get it and being liked and respected don’t necessarily go hand in hand. She also taught me that imperfection is a quality of being human.

Aunt Lulu was able to laugh at the contradictions in her life, and she liked telling the story of being forced to take a swimming class as a requirement of her doctorate even though swimming had nothing to do with her thesis. She was reminded that as a “colored” she could not swim or take the class at any time during the day when “whites” were in the pool. So she selected 5 a.m. as her time to be the only student in the class. Though the swimming requirement was meant to be an insult, she delighted in the small victory of being able to make the class time inconvenient for the instructor. She grew up on a farm and she loved mornings and the start of a new day; the experience made her love mornings more.

Aunt Lulu would tell me that story to remind me that creativity and ingenuity could be applied to any situation.

During a cruise on the Baltic Sea last year, I was the only African American on the ship and there was another American who decided to make racial jokes about me. Daily questions like “when will the laundry be done?” stirred my ire, but I refused to give power to his ignorance by responding. On the last day, after leaving the ship, I ran into him at a store in Copenhagen. He commented that he didn’t know there were “blacks” in Denmark. I thought of Aunt Lulu, how she had struggled, and I simply said to that bully, “Why are you so mean?” He told me I couldn’t take a joke, to which I added, “Insults are not jokes.” He walked away in a huff, and I know I will never see him again.

Aunt Lulu taught me to love words and to use them constructively. But the best lesson she ever taught me is that sometimes, to be successful, you have to just jump in the water and swim.

[Bio: Sonya Jackson's Aunt Lulu by Sonya Y Jackson, Daily Splash] Ms. Jackson is the former President of the United Airlines Foundation. And was responsible for guiding the mission, vision and strategy for United's community investment. Ms. Jackson previously held the post of President of the BP Foundation and Senior Global Business Adviser for BP's Global Social Investment Business Unit. She has also served as Executive Director of The Sears-Roebuck Foundation and Assistant Director of the Sara Lee Foundation.