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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.

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.

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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