What You Should Know About Opal Lee: The Grandmother of Juneteenth Who Campaigned For Its Establishment As A Federal Holiday

By Duchess Magazine

Opal Lee: The Grandmother of Juneteenth

“Nobody is free until we’re all free.”

Juneteenth, otherwise known as “Emancipation Day”, “Freedom Day,”
“Jubilee Day” or “Liberation Day” is one the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of over 200 years of slavery in the United States.

The holiday, dating back to Texas in 1865, celebrated annually every 19 June commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.

Juneteenth is derived from the combination of June and nineteenth, recognised as the date when slavery ended in the United States.

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act has just been signed, but a walk down memory lane reveals there’s been one power activist who made it all possible. Campaigning for years to make this day become a reality is Opal Lee aka the Grandmother of Juneteenth.

Paying homage, President of the United States Joe Biden, got down on one knee, delivering a special welcome to Ms. Lee, the 94 year old Texas activist present at the notable event signing the legislation to law. Before his signing, Biden asked the audience to give Lee, seated in the front row, a standing ovation.

“We’re blessed to mark the day in the presence of Ms. Opal Lee — as my mother would say, God, love her,” Biden said. “Over the course of decades, she’s made it her mission to see that this day came.”

How the movement started;

For over 40 years Ms. Lee has been at the forefront advocating for the holiday to become a national one.

“There’s not a day that passes that I’m not somewhere doing something, but I’m happy doing it. I get a big kick out of it,” she says. “I’m going to keep walking, and keep on talking, until Juneteenth is a national holiday.”

Opal Lee with her family grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Fort Worth, in 1939 at age 12, a life-changing event happened as mob of 500 white supremacists set fire to her home and vandalized it. No arrests were made. That hate crime ultimately shaped her, inspired to bring about change, although an educator by vocation, she swung into a life of social activism by calling, with mission to put an end to racism.

While Ms. Lee’s earliest celebrations of Juneteenth was having dinner with her family, it would witness a spiral movement. After birthing four children, she went on to earn a master’s degree and worked as a schoolteacher and counselor. Upon retirement she became involved with The Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, responsible for overseeing the city’s Juneteenth celebrations. The events has since grown much bigger.

Since 2016, she launched her Opal’s Walk 2 D.C, where each year on June 19, Lee makes a two-and-a-half-mile pilgrimage to commemorate the date in 1865.

“It’s really humbling,” Lee says of all the people who’ve joined her campaign. “I’m just overwhelmed at the support. I’m overwhelmed at the people who didn’t know about Juneteenth and it’s just coming to their attention.”

Although reports have it that in 2016, at age 89, Lee walked 1,400 miles from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC, in an effort to raise awareness and support for making Juneteenth a federal holiday, she clarifies that she didn’t walk all the way from Texas to Washington. “I did some hundreds of them, but not 1,400,” she said.

“We think Juneteenth is the catalyst. We think it’s a unifier. We started out talking about 100,000 signatures and now we’re saying let’s take a million signatures to Congress to let them know that it’s not just one little old lady in tennis shoes that they are going to take notice and do something.” Lee had said in the past.

Following her tireless activism and humanitarian work, the 94-year-old was also recognized by PeaceTech Lab’s International Peace Honors, she was also recognised in Channing Godfrey’s award winning “Miss Juneteenth,” film, Ms. Lee also inspired HarperCollins’ Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth Book by Alice Faye Duncan, expected to hit shelves 18th January, 2022.


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