Our America: Meet Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth

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Thursday, June 17, 2021
Meet Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth
From "Our America: Black Freedom" in June 2020: Opal Lee is confident that Juneteenth will finally become a national holiday across the country this year.

HOUSTON -- Opal Lee may not be walking a mile in her ancestor's shoes, but she's taking several major strides in continuing their mission. The 94-year-old is confident that this year, Juneteenth will finally become a national holiday across the country.

"It's going to be a national holiday, I have no doubt about it. My point is let's make it a holiday in my lifetime," Lee said.

She first celebrated the holiday as a child growing up in Marshall, Texas, before moving to Fort Worth at age 10. But there was one story she kept quiet her whole life: the night when 500 white rioters forced her family out of their home and set it on fire.

"The people didn't want us. They started gathering. The paper said the police couldn't control the mob. My father came with a gun and police told them if he busted a cap they'd let the mob have us," Lee recalled. "They started throwing things at the house and when they left, they took out the furniture and burned it and burned the house."

VIDEO: What to know about Juneteenth history, flag

Red, white and blue are the colors of the American flag, but they also grace the face of another quintessential American banner: the official Juneteenth flag.

It was June 19, 1939. Juneteenth.

"People have said that perhaps this is the catalyst that got me onto Juneteenth, I don't know that," said Lee.

But what Lee does know is that she isn't dwelling on what happened back then.

In 2016, Lee had an epiphany: "I was about 89, I'm pushing 90. And I don't see anything I've done, and I feel like there is something more that I can do. My idea was to walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., and that surely somebody would notice a little old lady in tennis shoes. If I left in September 2016, I got to Washington on January 10th, 2017."

In 2020, lawmakers introduced a resolution aiming to recognize the historical significance of the holiday, and the results on making Juneteenth a federal holiday were close.

VIDEO: Pres. Biden honors Opal Lee at Juneteenth bill signing

Opal Lee received an applause during an event to mark the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington.

"We were so sure and so close because the Senate was having a vote and one lone man descended," she said.

That man is Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who said that while he favored celebrating the end of slavery, he would not support adding another paid day off for federal workers. But lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, both of Texas, recently reintroduced legislation to nationally recognize Juneteenth.

Now, Lee continues to walk year after year for two-and-a-half miles, marking the two-and-a-half years between the Emancipation Proclamation and when the news of freedom arrived in Galveston, Texas.

On Memorial Day, the two-and-half-mile walk in Galveston began at Menard Park, where hundreds of people passed several historic landmarks, including Reedy Chapel AME church where Major General Gordon Granger nailed a sign to the church doors declaring that all slaves were free on June 19. That's when the slaves began to celebrate.

But 156 years after the news of their emancipation reached slaves, the nation still struggles with issues of systemic racism and injustice. That struggle surfaced in the national debate and widespread Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020.

"It's time you got your foot off of us. Black Lives Matter and the other groups are letting you know, and the young people are saying enough is enough," Lee said.

Since then, there has been a surge in Juneteenth recognition with more local and state governments officially recognizing Juneteenth. But despite a push by activists like Lee over the years, Juneteenth still isn't a federal holiday. Lee now urges the public to help her make an impact by signing the petition on opalswalk2dc.com to help make that happen.

Editor's note: This story was originally published days before the United States Congress passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act designating Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday, June 17.

In honor of Juneteenth, we're telling stories of what Black freedom means today, from a 94-year-old's quest for a national holiday to the fight for reparations to cultural celebrations. Click here for more stories from your city and around the country.