Wednesday, December 7, 2022 Dec 7, 2022
76° F Dallas, TX
Personalities

A Year After Juneteenth Became a National Holiday, Opal Lee’s Journey Continues

The “grandmother of Juneteenth” finally achieved her goal to make the day a national holiday. That doesn’t mean her job is done.
By Trinity Hawkins | |Photograph by Elizabeth Lavin
Opal Lee Juneteenth
Elizabeth Lavin

Opal Lee is known around the world as “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” but she thinks of herself as “just a little old lady in tennis shoes meddling in everyone’s business.”

June 15 will mark one year since she received the pen that President Joe Biden used to signed Senate Bill S. 475 into law, making Juneteenth the eleventh recognized national holiday and the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in 1986. This was an effort Lee has spent her entire life working toward. In 2016, she laced up her sneakers and made her first 1,400-mile walk to D.C. to formally ask President Barack Obama to do what would take another five years to accomplish.

During our chat in early May, she reflected on that moment, how much work it took to get there, how much work remains. But first, she said she was looking forward to catching up with an old friend, a now-valuable pastime.

“We’re meeting for lunch and a good talking,” she said. “I’m doing very nicely,” she added, “as busy as a cat on a hot tin roof.”

Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, the date 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 the day began many years earlier. Her appearance at the signing of the Juneteenth law was the culmination of decades of ingenuity and resilience.

Lee has always been a connector of people and someone in pursuit of outreach. 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 the time to devote to her Fort Worth community. She served as a member of the North Texas branch of Habitat for Humanity and was a founding member of Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, a nonprofit that helps residents find affordable housing.

Lee helped found the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society, a community-based effort committed to preserving and upholding the histories of Black people in Fort Worth. Her advocacy around Juneteenth sprouted from this work.

“The one word I’d use is persistence,” Lee said. “I’m just somebody’s grandmother.”

To her, “Juneteenth means freedom.” The celebration was founded on this concept. The event itself got its name from the date enslaved people received the delayed announcement from those Union soldiers. Texan slave owners 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, Juneteenth was primarily a Southern concern, having originated in Galveston, until the Great Migration of the 1910s. The festival extended beyond its southern heritage as Black Americans spread out across the country in search of better prospects and new opportunities. They brought their traditions with them.

Many Black activists and advocates have been striving for Juneteenth to become a national holiday since its expansion to other states in the U.S.

“To know its going to be on the calendar, that people are going to ask about it, to know that Juneteenth in going to be known is mind-boggling,” Lee said, adding later that she felt “elated.” “I am so delighted that so many people will know about Juneteenth.”

Juneteenth has taken on a life of its own, in both politics and popular culture. Though it did see a decline in favor during the early 1950s and 1960s—Black activists saw the holiday’s attention on the dark histories of slavery as a challenge to civil rights—Juneteenth resurfaced in the late 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 state holiday on January 1, 1980. Other state legislatures across the U.S. followed (slowly) behind. The holiday has been featured in television shows like Donald Glover’s Atlanta and, in 2018, Apple added Juneteenth to its list of official holidays through its iOS calendar.

Within this past year, Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois signed House Bill 3922, which established Juneteenth as a paid state holiday there. When I asked Lee how she felt about Juneteenth being embraced by other states as it spread beyond its southern roots, she underlined the importance of people being aware of the holiday.

“It’s important that people recognize it is not a Black thing, that it’s not just a Texas thing, but that it’s about freedom for everybody—and we’re not free yet,” she said.

Juneteenth is a joyous occasion, anchored in the value of finding joy and warmth in one’s liberty to be both free and Black, two concepts that were previously regarded to be diametrically opposed. However, the history of the forced enslavement that began at the earliest days of this country’s recorded history looms large in the background of Juneteenth itself. This cannot be overlooked. Its impact on modern society is palpable.

Black people continue to endure economic and social disadvantages on a far larger scale than other populations in our country and state. Slavery was inextricably linked to the United States’ economic structure, and the traces of that relationship are observed in Juneteenth’s expansion and the increased commercialization that followed.

This issue of “what’s next” is on Lee’s mind even after securing a national holiday.

“We can’t rest on our laurels. There is still work to be done,” she said. “Our educational system doesn’t tell the truth and we need the truth told … we have to work together to get rid of the disparities.”

Lee’s principle of persistence lives on, but more recently it has shifted toward her own farm and community garden, Opal’s Farm. Since its inception in 2019, Opal’s Farm has produced two harvests and provided to neighborhood food banks, achieving its mission of addressing food scarcity. In February, she was nominated for the 2022 Nobel Prize.

When asked for wisdom on how to organize and gather people, 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 mimic Lee’s work in my own life and advocacy. She instructed me in the way she goes about contacting 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 coming from. I want to be represented.”

Mentioning that I at times can be intimidated speaking to an elected representative on my own, Ms. Lee dispelled my fears. “You’re not to be afraid because he’s flesh and blood just like you. He is no more in God’s sight than you are.”

I researched plant and tree growth after learning about Ms. Lee’s agricultural efforts. When a tree’s roots are strong, they’re known to branch off and scatter widely across the ground. As the tree develops, it helps grow what is around it.  

Ms. Opal Lee is a lot like that. Her roots are strong.

And on June 18, she’ll lace up her tennis shoes once again to conduct her annual 2.5-mile Walk for Freedom. Register at opalswalk.com to join her.

Credits

Styled by Diamond Mahone
Caftan Courtesy of La Vie Style House