After a lifetime of advocacy, a 1,400-mile trek to Washington, DC and a 2.5-mile trek through Fort Worth on Saturday afternoon in the sweltering heat, says the “grandmother of June 16,” 95-year-old Opal Lee, who work is not over yet.
“June is freedom and I advocate that we celebrate freedom from June 19th to July 4th, but I want you to make a committee of one because you know people who aren’t on the same page stand like you,” Lee said after their three-hour walk.
“You’re going to have to change your mind,” Lee continued. “We’ve brought 1.5 million signatures to Congress and were ready to take so many more when we got the call from the White House. Can you imagine 3 million people on the same page? We could turn this country inside out.”
Lee led a march of hundreds of people from the historic Southside to downtown Fort Worth in her annual Walk for Freedom Saturday morning. The 2.5 mile walk, which took about three hours, represented the 2.5 years that Texan slaves waited for their freedom before Union troops arrived in 1865 to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 2016, the Fort Worth native kicked off her campaign with a walk to Washington, D.C. in hopes of making June 16 a federal holiday. The then 89-year-old crossed 14 states and 1,400 miles.
She restarted the 2019 campaign and traversed seven states before COVID-19 cut short the trip. Finally, last June, President Joe Biden signed federal legislation nationally recognizing the holiday. Lee was present.
A proud hometown
“The best thing is she saw it become a holiday,” said Kimberly Edwards, 64.
Edwards, who said she grew up with Lee as her neighbor, also mentioned that the 95-year-old had spoken about her mission to make June 16 a nationally recognized holiday for as long as she could remember.
“[She talked about this] All your life,” Edwards said. “…She’s 95, she went through it. She has seen how this world has really changed. It’s not just about black people. It’s about all of us.”
Rundee Smith, 35, also grew up on historic Southside, just down the street from 1050 Evans Ave., where the Saturday walk began.
“You hear about legends in different states, in different places, but actually being in the same city? It’s a blessing,” Smith said, adding a sentiment similar to Edwards’ that the gathering allowed people from all cultures and from across the state to come together.
“With her leadership as an example, she is exiting the generational shift,” Smith said. “You can’t erase history. Often people will try to cover it up and say, “Hey, that didn’t happen,” but because it’s a holiday, our children’s children have a chance to… be informed of how far God has taken us. ”
For the likes of Smith and Edwards, and 84-year-old Sarah Walker, who is also a neighbor of the Lees and has known them “for a long, long time,” the June 16 celebration was something the black community shared, and now is it’s such a city, state and national recognition.
“Being from Fort Worth, there’s a park called Greenway Park, and we used to go there every June 19th and July 4th to celebrate,” Walker said. “Finally there are more places to do things [for the holiday].”
Opal’s Walk For Freedom Day in Fort Worth
Though some people have learned about the meaning of June 16 in recent years, Lee’s granddaughter, Dione Sims, said the city of Fort Worth and its residents did nothing but shower the 95-year-old with love and support.
“Even before it became a federal holiday, you guys did the caravan in 2020 with over 300 cars and followed her as she made her first 2.5 run for Juneteenth here in Fort Worth,” Sims said. “I can’t wait to see the news shows, to see the drones showing how much Fort Worth loves the jewel that is my grandmother.”
Also, after Lee’s trip through Fort Worth in 100+ degree heat, Mayor Mattie Parker announced that June 18 will be designated Fort Worth’s Opal’s Walk For Freedom Day.
“She’s a teacher, an author, a pillar of the Fort Worth community and now really an example to the whole world and what it looks like to have the tenacity and the refusal to ever give up no matter what,” Parker said . “She really is the mayor of Fort Worth, let’s face it, right? She represents what it means to never give up and to do the right thing.”
Parker was joined by several state and local officials, including Rep. Nicole Collier and Beto O’Rourke, who is running for governor.
“[Lee] has worked tirelessly to make sure our voices are heard,” said Collier. “She took her fight to Washington and made sure we were recognized on the June 16 holiday. …And she finally saw the culmination of her efforts.”
At the conclusion of the speeches, the City of Fort Worth raised the Juneteenth flag alongside the American and Texas flags.
“The star represents Texas because Juneteenth happened in Texas. The big star around is the nova that freedom travels everywhere. The arc separating the red from the blue and extending the width of the flag represents a new horizon because we need to think about the future now, not the past,” Sims said. “The blue represents African Americans today because we’re still fighting for equality, and the red, of course, represents the blood of our ancestors.”
This story was originally published June 18, 2022 2:49 p.m.