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The Grandmother of Juneteenth Launched a Movement

How activist Opal Lee helped turn a cherished tradition into our newest national holiday

Opal Lee in her library at home
PHOTOGRAPHS BY RAMBO

A retired teacher from Fort Worth, Texas, Opal Lee has advocated for the recognition of Juneteenth as an important day in history. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves in Southern states to be free in 1863, it took two more years for the news to spread to Texas and for officials there to announce, on June 19, 1865, that slavery had been abolished.

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Last year Lee got her wish: Juneteenth was declared a national holiday. This year the 95-year-old Lee will continue her tradition of leading Opal’s Walk for Freedom, a multicity fundraising walk of 2.5 miles, to recognize the 2.5 years it took for the news of freedom to reach enslaved people throughout the country.

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Opal Lee: Have you ever had a gut feeling about something? I felt, positively, like I hadn’t done enough with my life. I’d finished college, gotten a master’s degree, taught school, worked as a social worker, had children. We had a farm. Our food bank served 500 families a day. I was volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. But even into my 80s, I had a nagging feeling that I should be doing more. 

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The History of Juneteenth

1865: The U.S. Army arrives in Galveston, Texas, and on June 19 informs enslaved African Americans of their freedom.

1866: Annual June 19 Jubilee Day celebrations begin in Texas, with parades, cookouts, prayer gatherings and music.

1968: The Reverend Ralph Abernathy calls Juneteenth “Solidarity Day” in the Poor People’s Campaign.

1979: The Texas Legislature makes Juneteenth a state holiday.

2016: With 45 states now recognizing Juneteenth, Opal Lee, 89, begins her journey from Texas to Washington, D.C.

2021: Congress passes a law to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

And I had always thought that Juneteenth was a day everybody ought to know about: the day in 1865 when the last of the people held in bondage in Texas learned they were free. So, in 2016, I began a march from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to Juneteenth. I didn’t walk the whole way, but I did make it to Washington. In 2019, I started a petition, and we garnered 1.5 million signatures in favor of the holiday. People talked about it. And, of course, the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations for social justice that followed have helped draw attention to the cause. The fact that Juneteenth became a national holiday in my lifetime — I’m still on cloud nine. I could do a holy dance except they’d say I was twerking!

Older people don’t always remember this, but we have power. We have so much to teach the younger generations. I know some people are afraid. They don’t want to be bothered, or they draw into themselves. But the future depends on us. We can’t be satisfied with just having Juneteenth made into law. We’ve got joblessness, homelessness, health care, climate change. If we don’t address these things, nobody’s going to. We have to educate, because the books don’t always tell the truth. I’ve seen pictures in textbooks of Black folks picking cotton, and they almost looked like they were enjoying themselves. I picked cotton, and ain’t nothing enjoyable about it. You have to stand up and say, “These things cannot happen anymore.”

95-Year-Old Turns Juneteenth Trauma Into U.S. Holiday

Lately, you hear talk about our differences, but under our skin we are the same. We bleed red blood, all of us. Freedom isn’t something just for Black people to celebrate. It’s for everybody. I’d like to see our country celebrate freedom from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July. Now that would be a celebration! If each one of us could convince one person who’s not on the same page, we could do it. It’s not gonna happen in a day or a week. We have to work on it. Slowly. Persistently. That’s how change happens. — As told to David Hochman

 

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