After issuing a On the April morning at her home in Fort Worth, Texas, at her 13-acre farm, a food bank and a fundraiser for a Juneteenth museum, Opal Lee, 95, took off her shoes and sat down to relax.
She joked that the home looks like a museum, with almost every inch of wall space adorned with family photos, awards and plaques she’s won for her work, which transformed June 16 from a backyard celebration into a nationally recognized holiday.
Known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, Lee may have achieved her goal of making Juneteenth a federal holiday, but that doesn’t mean she’s slowing down — as many who know her can attest. There is still work to be done, she said, to use Juneteenth as an opportunity to educate, heal and resolve many of the socioeconomic issues that are disproportionately affecting the black community.
“None of us are free until we’re all free,” she told USA TODAY during a Zoom call. “This means that we must keep working to eliminate the inequalities in our country. … We need help.”
June 16 – also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day or Jubilee Day – symbolizes the end of slavery, although it was not abolished until the 13th Amendment. The holiday commemorates the day in 1865 that Major General Gordon Granger broke the news of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the people of Galveston, Texas.
Lee has campaigned for making June 16 a national holiday for the past five years. She did that last year.
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As a kid growing up in Marshall, Texas, the June 16 celebrations felt like Christmas, with music, speeches, games and food, Lee said. But when she was 12, a white mob burned down her family’s home in Fort Worth, forcing her to flee.
She sees June 16th as an opportunity to heal some of that trauma.
The celebrations can also be healing for the country, especially as black Americans recover from the trauma of on-camera police killings and the physical and emotional fallout of racism.
Fort Worth parties were mostly family affairs until she helped organize one of the first big celebrations in the city — a three-day festival that drew more than 10,000 people each day in the 1970s with the help of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society .
Texas was the first state to recognize June 16 as a public holiday in 1980. But about six years ago, Lee decided to get June 16 out of Texas, so she headed from Fort Worth to Washington, DC to bring the holiday into the national spotlight.
As Lee often tells people, she thought “a little old lady in tennis shoes” might draw some attention. She was 89 years old at the time.
“She’s persistent,” said Bob Ray Sanders, a former reporter with the Fort Worth Star Telegram and KERA-TV who has covered Lee’s work since the 1970s. “She is not afraid to ask for whatever she feels she needs for the community she serves. She was just a force.”
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While their campaign was unsuccessful during the Obama or Trump administrations, the holiday garnered renewed attention in 2020 as Americans clamored for more information about black history amid nationwide protests sparked in part by the death of George Floyd searched.
Lee held her annual walk about a month after Floyd’s death, and her petition to make June 16 a national holiday garnered more than a million signatures. The following year, President Joe Biden realized Lee’s dream – by declaring June 19, 2021 a federal holiday. Now hundreds of companies are giving their employees a day off on June 16th.
Lee said she was “humbled” by the success of her campaign.
“The June 16th holiday means a lot to all of us,” she told USA TODAY during a Zoom call. “It might mean we’ve accomplished something.”
Deborah Evans, vice chair of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has known Lee for about a decade and said she’s had “a tremendous impact” in spreading the message about the importance of June 19.
“I tell her all the time that when I grow up I want to be just like her,” Evans said.
“We have a lot to do”
Lee has a lot of issues she hopes to address in Fort Worth, in part through her city farm, which employs people who were formerly incarcerated, and a community food bank that organizers say feeds hundreds of families every week.
These projects are part of her decades-long effort to address hunger, housing insecurity, education and economic inequality through a range of organizations in her community. Lee’s long history of community service was documented in a letter signed by 33 members of Congress nominating her for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
“Homelessness, unemployment and climate change – all of these things need to be addressed. We don’t have time to sit back,'” she told USA TODAY. “We have a lot to do.”
Sanders called her work in the community “an incredible achievement.”
“She was just a pillar of several organizations here,” he said.
Lee has helped “fill in gaps in the community,” said Marty Leonard, a local water district board member who helped Lee acquire the land for her farm.
“She’s dynamic. She’s unique,” she said. “If necessary, she could move mountains.”
This year Lee will lead her annual 2 1/2 mile walk, attend a prayer breakfast and watch the Miss Juneteenth pageant. Lee, in particular, who worked as an educator for years, also wants to use the vacation as an opportunity to learn – especially at a time when lawmakers want to limit racism classes in public schools.
She also dreams of opening a Juneteenth museum in 2024 and seeing the celebrations last “from June 19 to July 4.”
“Because we weren’t free on July Fourth,” she said. “And we still don’t have freedom.”
Contact Breaking News reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg