West Des Moines Honors The Long Family’s Contributions

Members of the Long family and West Des Moines officials celebrate the new Johnny and Barbara Long honorary roadway in the city. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line staff

By Ty Rushing

September 7, 2023

For 34 years straight, Johnny and Barbara Long never missed a West Des Moines City Council meeting.

“They attended more meetings [in other years] as well, but consistently those 34, they were there,” said Dr. Vickie Long Hill, the couple’s daughter and the family’s spokesperson.

West Des Moines recently named a street after Johnny and Barbara Long to pay tribute to their longtime efforts in improving the community, more specifically the historic Valley Junction area which dates back to the city’s 1893 founding as a rail hub. Johnny died in 2010, at the age of 77, and Barbara in 2021, a few months shy of her 90th birthday. 

The reason the Longs, who were Black, went to so many public meetings was to ensure they could look after the interests of the racially and culturally diverse residents of Valley Junction.

The Longs were affectionately referred to as the “Watchdogs for Valley Junction” and it is where they both grew up and raised their nine children. Both of their families had deep roots in the area. Barbara’s family, the Pages, have been in Valley Junction for more than 100 years, while the Longs have been there for almost 80 years, according to Dr. Long Hill.

Not only were the Longs present at city council meetings, but the couple was not shy about using their voices to speak out on issues.

“My parents were assertive and they were knowledgeable in what they were speaking about,” said Dr. Long Hill, who often accompanied her parents to those meetings.

The Longs also backed up their words with actions and were instrumental in getting the nonprofit Eddie Davis Community Center in West Des Moines started. In addition to helping found, fund, and operate the center, Johnny helped build it during its construction and Barbara was its first executive director. It’s also named after Johnny’s stepfather, a longtime pastor in the area.

The Eddie Davis Community Center hosts a food pantry, clothing closet, computer lab, legal aid, youth programming, and other services. It also offers on-site meals and a fitness center and all the features are available to anyone regardless of income. 

The Longs were also founding members of the Valley Junction Residential Association. That organization was created to address housing concerns, neighborhood maintenance issues, and, perhaps most crucially, to change zoning codes to make the area less hazardous for the people who lived there.

“At one time, it was what we called mixed-zoning and you could have a car repair place and right next door is your house, and on the other side they are selling tractor equipment,” said Dr. Long Hill, noting that it wasn’t until the 1990s when the zoning code changed.

While it may seem like the relationship between the Longs and the city of West Des Moines was adversarial, it was one of mutual respect, according to family members and community leaders.

In fact, the late Robert Parks, the first Black person to serve on the West Des Moines City Council, was often quoted as saying “When Johhny Long talks, everyone listens.”

To honor that legacy, the city of West Des Moines unveiled the Johnny E. Long Jr. and Barbara Long Honorary Roadway along Maple Street during a Sept. 1 ceremony attended by family, friends, supporters, and local officials. 

West Des Moines Honors The Long Family's Contributions

“The honorary roadway naming ceremony is not about just putting up a sign, it’s about celebrating the history, the spirit of selflessness, the passion, and community advocacy that Barb and John Long embodied throughout their lives,” said West Des Moines City Councilman Matthew McKinney.

“Their commitment to making Valley Junction a better place to live and helping to forge the gem that Valley Junction is today is a testament to the power individuals can have in shaping their neighborhoods,” he continued.

The Long family made the initial request for the honorary street naming more than a decade ago, shortly after Johnny’s death. That request was declined due to “public safety considerations.”

However, in the time since, the city has revised its policy on honorary street namings, and the Long family’s application to name a section of Maple Street after Johnny and Barbara was unanimously approved on June 5.

“The naming of an honorary street may seem like a small thing to some, a momentous thing to others, but we know the courage and conscious decision that was made to bestow this honor upon our parents and today is a special day,” Dr. Long Hill said during the ceremony. 

“It’s the first time an honorary street has been designated to any citizen. It also represents a special day to the African American community for the same reasons—it’s the first time an African American was honored here in Valley Junction,” she continued.

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To contact Senior Editor Ty Rushing for tips or story ideas, email him at [email protected] or find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.


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