One year after Juneteenth became a national holiday, Opal Lee’s journey continues
Opal Lee is known the world over as “Juneteenth’s grandmother”, but she considers herself “just a little old woman in tennis shoes meddling in everyone’s business”.
June 15 will mark one year since she received the pen President Joe Biden used to sign Senate Bill S. 475 into law, making Juneteenth the eleventh nationally recognized holiday and the first since Martin Luther Day. King Jr., in 1986. It was an effort that Lee spent his whole life working on. In 2016, she laced up her sneakers and took her first 1,400-mile walk to DC to formally ask President Barack Obama to do what would take another five years to accomplish.
During our conversation in early May, she reflected on this moment, how much work it took to get there, how much work remains. But first, she said she was looking forward to reuniting with an old friend, a now treasured hobby.
“We meet for lunch and a good chat,” she said. “I’m fine,” she added, “as busy as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
June 19 marks June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston to inform enslaved black people of their freedom, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Opal Lee’s efforts to recognize this day began many years earlier. Its appearance at the signing of the June 19 law was the culmination of decades of ingenuity and resilience.
Lee has always been a people connector and someone in search of awareness. She was born in Marshall, Texas in 1926. After earning her master’s degree in counseling and guidance, Lee worked as a counselor for the Fort Worth Independent School District until her retirement.
After leaving the district, she finally had time to devote herself to her community of Fort Worth. She was a member of the North Texas branch of Habitat for Humanity and was a founding member of Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, a nonprofit organization that helps residents find affordable housing.
Lee helped found the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society, a community effort committed to preserving and defending black history in Fort Worth. His advocacy around Juneteenth grew out of this work.
“The only word I would use is perseverance,” Lee said. “I’m just someone’s grandmother.”
For her, “Juneteenth means freedom”. The celebration was founded on this concept. The event itself takes its name from the date the slaves received the delayed announcement from these Union soldiers. Texan slaveholders refused to recognize both the conclusion of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, making Texas the last state in the Confederacy to officially abolish slavery.
For about half a century, Juneteeth was primarily a Southern concern, originating in Galveston until the Great Migration of the 1910s. The festival expanded beyond its southern heritage as black Americans spread across the country in search of better prospects and new opportunities. They brought their traditions with them.
Many black activists and advocates have been working to make Juneteeth a national holiday since it has spread to other states in the United States.
“Knowing that it’s going to be on the calendar, that people are going to ask about it, knowing that Juneteenth is going to be known is mind-boggling,” Lee said, later adding that she felt “thrilled.” “I’m so thrilled that so many people know about Juneteeth.”
Juneteenth has taken on a life of its own, both in politics and in popular culture. Although he waned in favor in the early 1950s and 1960s—black activists saw the holiday’s focus on the dark histories of slavery as a challenge to civil rights—Juneteeth resurfaced in late of the 1970s and 1980s as black communities embraced the holiday’s focus on black joy and new beginnings.
Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday on January 1, 1980. Other state legislatures across the United States followed (slowly). The party has been featured on TV shows like Donald Glover’s Atlanta and, in 2018, Apple added Juneteenth to its list of holidays through its iOS Calendar.
In the past year, Governor JB Pritzker of Illinois signed House Bill 3922, which established Juneteenth as a paid holiday. When I asked Lee how she felt about Juneteenth being embraced by other states as it expanded beyond its southern roots, she emphasized the importance of people being aware Of the party.
“It’s important for people to recognize that it’s not a black thing, it’s not just a Texas thing, but it’s about freedom for everyone – and we’re not free yet. “, she said.
Juneteenth is a joyful occasion, rooted in the value of finding joy and warmth in one’s freedom to be both free and Black, two concepts that were previously seen as diametrically opposed. However, the history of forced slavery that began from the earliest days of this country’s recorded history looms large in the background of Juneteeth itself. It cannot be overlooked. Its impact on modern society is palpable.
Black people continue to experience economic and social disadvantage on a far greater scale than other populations in our country and state. Slavery was inextricably linked to the economic structure of the United States, and traces of this relationship are seen in the expansion of Juneteenth and the increased commercialization that followed.
This question of “what’s next” is on Lee’s mind even after getting a national holiday.
“We cannot rest on our laurels. There is still work to be done,” she said. “Our education system is not telling the truth and we need the truth to be told…we need to work together to eliminate the disparities.”
Lee’s principle of perseverance lives on, but more recently he has moved to his own farm and community garden, Opal’s Farm. Since its inception in 2019, Opal’s Farm has produced two crops and supplied to neighborhood food banks, fulfilling its mission to address food shortages. In February, she was nominated for the 2022 Nobel Prize.
When asked for wisdom on how to organize and bring people together, Lee was quick and to the point: you just have to “get people on the same page.”
As a young person, I wondered how I could emulate Lee’s work in my own life and advocacy. She explained to me how she goes about contacting her elected officials: “I just pick up the phone and call mine and tell them what I want. I make sure they understand where I’m coming from. I want to be represented.
By mentioning that I can sometimes be intimidated to speak alone to an elected representative, Ms. Lee allayed my fears. “You don’t have to be afraid because he is flesh and blood, just like you. He’s no more in the sight of God than you are.
I researched the growth of plants and trees after learning about Ms. Lee’s farming efforts. When a tree’s roots are strong, they are known to branch out and spread widely across the ground. As the tree grows, it helps to grow what surrounds it.
Mrs. Opal Lee is a bit like that. Its roots are strong.
And on June 18, she’ll lace up her tennis shoes again to complete her annual 2.5-mile walk for freedom. Sign up at opalswalk.com to join her.
Caftan Courtesy of
La Vie style house