Opal Lee is known around the world as “Juneteenth’s grandmother,” but she sees herself as “just a little old lady in tennis shoes meddling in everyone’s business.”
June 15 marks a year since she received the pen that President Joe Biden used to sign Senate bill P. 475. This makes June 11 the eleventh recognized national holiday and the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986. This was an effort Lee has worked toward throughout her life. In 2016, she laced up her sneakers and made her first 1,400-mile run to DC to officially ask President Barack Obama to do what would take another five years.
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 meeting up with an old friend, a now valuable pastime.
“We meet for lunch and a good chat,” she said. “I’m very fine,” she added, “as busy as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
June 19 marks June 19, 1865, the date Union soldiers arrived in Galveston to announce enslaved blacks of their freedom—two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Opal Lee’s efforts to discern the day began many years earlier. Her appearance at the signing of the June 16 law was the culmination of decades of ingenuity and resilience.
Lee has always been a link between people and someone who championed public relations. 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 to her community in Fort Worth. She was a member of the North Texas branch of Habitat for Humanity and 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-based initiative dedicated to preserving and preserving Black history in Fort Worth. Her advocacy for Juneteenth grew out of this work.
“The only word I would use is persistence,” Lee said. “I’m just someone’s grandmother.”
For them, “June 16 means freedom.” The celebration was founded on this concept. The event itself got its name from the date enslaved people received the belated announcement from these Union soldiers. Texan slaveholders refused to recognize both the conclusion of the Civil War and the Proclamation of Emancipation, making Texas the last Confederate state to officially abolish slavery.
Juneteeth was primarily a Southern corporation, originating in Galveston, for about half a century 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 lobbied for Juneteeth to become a national holiday since its expansion to other US states
“Knowing it’s going to be on the calendar, that people are going to be asking for it, knowing that June 16 will be known is mind-blowing,” Lee said, later adding that she felt “elated.” “I am delighted that so many people are learning about Juneteeth.”
Juneteenth has taken on a life of its own in both politics and popular culture. Though there was a dip in favor in the early 1950s and 1960s — black activists saw the holiday’s attention to slavery’s dark history as a challenge to civil rights — June re-emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s, as blacks Communities embraced the focus of the holiday Black Joy and New Beginnings.
Texas was the first state to declare June 16 a public holiday on January 1, 1980. Other state legislatures in the US followed (slowly) behind. The holiday has been featured on television shows such as Donald Glovers Atlanta and in 2018, Apple added June 16 to its list of official holidays via its iOS calendar.
Last year, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed House Bill 3922, making June 16 a paid public holiday there. When I asked Lee what she thought of June 16 being embraced by other states as it spread beyond its southern roots, she emphasized the importance of people being aware of the holiday.
“It’s important for people to realize that it’s not a black thing, it’s not just a Texas thing, it’s about freedom for everyone — and we’re not free yet,” she said.
June 16 is a joyful occasion, anchored in the value of finding joy and warmth in the liberty of being both free and black, two concepts once thought to be diametrically opposed. However, the history of forced enslavement that began in the earliest days of this country’s recorded history looms in the background of Juneteeth itself. This is not to be overlooked. Its impact on modern society is palpable.
Black people continue to experience economic and social disadvantage to a far greater extent than other populations in our country and state. Slavery was inseparable from the economic structure of the United States, and traces of this relationship can be seen in the expansion of Juneteenth and the increased commercialization that followed.
This issue of What’s Next keeps Lee busy even after securing a national holiday.
“We cannot rest on our laurels. There’s still a lot to do,” she said. “Our education system doesn’t tell the truth and we have to tell the truth… we have to work together to eliminate the differences.”
Lee’s principle of perseverance lives on, but more recently it has shifted to her own farm and community garden, Opal’s Farm. Since its inception in 2019, Opal’s Farm has produced and shipped two crops to neighborhood food banks to fulfill 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 “just 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 contacts her elected representatives: “I just pick up the phone and call mine and tell them what I want. I make sure they understand where I’m from. I want to be represented.”
Ms. Lee mentioned that I could sometimes be intimidated when speaking alone with an elected official and put my fears to rest. “You don’t need to be afraid because he is flesh and blood just like you. He is no more than you in God’s eyes.”
I researched plant and tree growth after learning about Ms. Lee’s farming endeavors. When a tree’s roots are strong, they branch out and spread far across the ground. As the tree develops, it helps grow what is around it.
Ms. Opal Lee is very similar. Your 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. Register at opalswalk.com to join her.
Kaftan Courtesy of
La Vie style house