CNCounty News

Royceann Porter’s role makes history in Johnson County, Iowa

Johnson County, Iowa Supervisor Royceann Porter poses at the grand opening of her soul food restaurant, Royceann's. Photo courtesy of Royceann Porter

Key Takeaways

First Royceann Porter learned where the sausage comes from. Then she learned how it’s made. And now she serves it. 

Porter came to Iowa to work in a meatpacking plant. Three decades later, she was setting policy as a Johnson County supervisor — the first Black supervisor in county history and one of few in state history. And last year, she leaned on years of community cooking to open a soul food restaurant in Iowa City.

The meatpacking job lasted all of 33 days — the “kill floor” is exactly what it sounds like — but she was sold on Washington County, Iowa after growing up in “the projects of Saginaw, Michigan,” and eventually moved to Johnson County with her husband. Her work as a union organizer for the Teamsters prompted her to seek office in 2018 as a special election candidate for the Board of Supervisors.

 “I was knocking doors for other people, telling people to get out and vote for candidates who would make a difference in our community and someone I worked with said I should run,” she said. “I thought it was a joke until 10 minutes later, when we’d made our third phone call to start organizing my campaign.”

Porter found it to be a natural fit.

“I’ve always enjoyed being able to advocate on behalf of others,” she said. “I just try to use my position to amplify the underrepresented voices, to advocate for equitable policies and build bridges within my community.

She’s one of few Black elected county officials in a state that is only 4.4% Black — a cursory glance at county Board of supervisors shows only one other Black official among 60% of counties that publish photos of their Boards. That and her years of community advocacy, including service on the Johnson County Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, have helped position her to be that voice, advocating for inclusive county policies and bringing attention to racial disparities. 

“By representing a broader range of voices, I contribute to creating a more equitable and culturally sensitive environment and foster unity and a sense of belonging among all residents,” she said. 

She co-founded the Black Voices Project, which organizes the Black community around issues of housing, policing, education and employment — all priorities she has pursued during her career. When a new state law invalidated Johnson County’s minimum wage increase, Porter was part of a community effort to persuade employers to voluntarily raise their wages.

“I saw how important local control was when that happened,” she said.

Though she had lived in Johnson County for more than 30 years before she ran for the Board of Supervisors — and ran for the Iowa City Council — Porter’s work with the county has broadened her horizons they way she hoped her representation would do for county policies. While she was running for office, a woman asked if she wanted to learn about conservation issues.

“I showed up at her house and she ended up spending six hours getting me up to speed on what I needed to know,” Porter said. “I might have worked in a slaughterhouse, but I didn’t know much else about farm life before that.”

That went on to offer her some credibility during a public meeting where she was able to show off what she knew.

“I started talking to some farmers and they realized I knew what I was talking about,” she said. “They were a little surprised I knew that much, but I left that meeting with a stack of business cards from them and invitations to continue the discussion.”

In 2021, the Board of Supervisors changed the county’s namesake, which had been U.S. Vice President Richard Johnson, to Lulu Merle Johnson, the first Black woman in the state to earn a doctorate. Vice President Johnson had been a slaveowner.

“That was something I’m really proud of,” Porter said. “It was an opportunity to honor a woman who made history, she was a proud graduate of the University of Iowa and went on to teach at historically Black colleges (Florida A&M University, West Virginia State College and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania).”

Johnson County has seen a 300% increase in its Black population in the last 20 years, driven primarily by migration from Sudan and the Congo, drawn by community support mechanisms for immigrants and jobs in the meatpacking industry, just as how Porter came to Iowa.

“I try to tell people all the time — I’m not about just advocating on behalf of my people, but I advocate on behalf of anybody. I don’t care what color you are,” she said.  

Throughout her life in Iowa, Porter focused on her cooking, primarily as a way of getting people to come to church.

“I’ve essentially been feeding my community for so long, it just seemed natural to do something more with it,” she said.

She opened a restaurant, Royceann’s, in March 2023, in a region that could be described as a “soul food desert.”

“They say the first year is the hardest for a restaurant and we’ve almost made it,” she said. “I’ve had to make adjustments, like opening one Sunday a month and making sure I can sell out that day.”

Porter also received a lifetime achievement award from the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP.

“I appreciated that, but I feel like I’m just getting started,” she said. “I’m truly blessed to be able to help people.”

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