EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted before President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Act, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
At age 94, Ms. Opal Lee, who is lovingly called the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” has no time to slow down her Juneteenth activism. The native Texan, who was born in 1926, has been celebrating the holiday for decades, and pushing Congress and the White House to make it a national holiday, which President Joe Biden signed into law on July 17. Born in Marshall and raised in Fort Worth, Lee grew up commemorating June 19, 1865 every year — a day that many call “Emancipation Day,” as it marked the official end of slavery for African Americans in Texas — with community parties. Even though Texas made Juneteenth a statewide holiday in 1980, Lee and many others would like the entire nation to honor the day that celebrates the end of slavery.
In 2016, at age 90, Lee launched a walking campaign, from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness. “It’s not a Black thing. It’s not a white thing,” Lee told Blavity, in 2019. “It’s just the right thing.” Fast forward to the 2020s, and the former teacher wants everyone in the country to understand the nasty ripple effects that slavery has on everyone and to honor Juneteenth with the fanfare and recognition she believes it deserves.
Consequently, Lee has become a cause célèbre and her efforts have undoubtedly raised awareness. Last year, The New York Times profiled her efforts. The same day the story was published, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced H.R.7232, Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, with overwhelming Democratic support. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) revisited the case this past February, where it passed through the Senate. Also in February, Lee was awarded Visit Fort Worth’s 2021 Hospitality Award for her activism (watch the video below). In addition to Lee’s signature Juneteenth 2.5-mile walk, she will also join musicians Pharrell Williams and H.E.R. at Variety’s Changemakers Summit, on June 17-18.
As someone who has witnessed many changes around Juneteenth over the decades — from Texas being the lone state that acknowledged it to a proposed Juneteenth bill now reaching the House and President Joe Biden’s desk- Lee’s advocacy represents a historical piece of the Black community’s struggle in the U.S., which is to never forget history. Lee is a living history; a national educator. Lee spoke to Colorlines about what Juneteenth means to her and why she’s fighting to make it as significant as July 4.
Ms. Opal Lee as told to Colorlines:
I tell people, we didn’t know what a white person looked like, except for the man who would come in his car to sell you linen, clothing, dishes and all that kind of stuff. There was a store at the end of our street called Miranto’s Grocery Store. And Mr. Miranto and his family didn’t look white to me so I didn’t think they were. All the people I knew in Marshall were Black. Then we moved to Fort Worth and things changed.
I learned about Juneteenth in Marshall. We were doing Juneteenth celebrations like they were like Christmas. We’d go to the fairgrounds and there would be parades, music and food and games. It was an all-day affair on the 19th day of June. I don’t remember being told why we were celebrating, but it was a glorious day.
I learned about the significance of Juneteenth when we moved to Fort Worth and I had a mentor named Lenora Rolla. Together, with others, we started the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society. There was a group who put on the Juneteenth activities, and their idea was to make money and share it with the nonprofits. But they found it was so costly to put on the festivals that they chose not to do it anymore and the Historical Society started doing Juneteenth festivals. One of those times, we had some 30,000 people together across a three-day period, 10,000 people a day, at Sycamore Park.
It was through the Historical Society that I learned about the significance of Juneteenth. I learned that it was two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that the enslaved in Texas found out they were free. Now, they knew it because they had what was called “watch night” services on New Year’s Eve. They had watched and waited for freedom. And when it came, a general, Gordon Granger, with maybe 7,000 Colored troops, made his way to Galveston and began to tell the troops to tell people that the enslaved were free. Gordon Granger nailed that General Order Number 3 to the door of what’s now Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Galveston. When those people came in from their labor and somebody read that to them, they started celebrating and we’ve been celebrating ever since.
Once I learned the history of Juneteenth, I was hooked. I wanted to share it with everybody. I joined a group called the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. The Rev. Ronald Myers, who is a minister, medical doctor, and a jazz musician, is responsible for celebrations being in more than 47 of the 48 states that celebrate now. Since Texas made Juneteenth a statewide holiday in 1980, we are letting people know that we are addressing disparities. Homelessness is one of them. We work on joblessness and jobs; that two different groups could be doing the same job and get different pay. The health disparities. I can go to the hospital and get what I need but you can’t. And climate change, climate change, climate change. The scientists have told us that we need to do better than what we’re doing and I embrace this. In fact, I believe if we don’t do something about climate change, we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket.
There are also the educational components. We have something called “I’m Following You,” where we show people how to buy a home, how to straighten up their credit. We get the children of all nationalities together and they practice music for a week. Then they do a concert of the different songs they’ve learned from the different ethnic groups. The children were also given 12 freedoms gained. When the enslaved were freed, they gained the opportunity to learn to read and write. They were free to name themselves. They were free to not let their children be taken from them. They were free to buy property. Twelve freedoms they gained and 12 is what was given to the 800 children who then created drawings about these freedoms.
We also don’t want people to think it’s a Black thing, or a Texas thing because it’s not. None of us are free until we’re all free. And we aren’t free yet.
They’re just too many disparities. Last September, we took 1.5 million signatures to Congress and we proposed taking another million signatories to them this Juneteenth. Each one of us could be a part by going to Opalswalk2dc.com and giving us the signatures that we need. Congress are the busiest cats on the Hot Tin Roof cover and we don’t need them to put Juneteenth to the back burner. If we have to do Juneteenth every day of the cotton picking year, we have got to get this bill passed. And we almost had something going with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), who called for a vote in the Senate [last year]. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) proposed discarding Columbus Day and having Juneteenth instead and it didn’t pass, when he could have gone along with Cornyn, making it unanimous in the Senate, he dissented instead. Well, I was at the press conference in the spring, and Cornyn authored another bill to have Juneteenth made into a national holiday, as did Sheila Jackson Lee, which are the two bills we’re pushing. Everyone needs to let their Congress people know that they, too, want Juneteenth to be a national holiday and that it’s not just one little old lady in tennis shoes running around talking about Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is a bridge that should be celebrated from the 19th to the Fourth of July. And we weren’t free on the Fourth of July. So if you’re going to celebrate freedom, let it be celebrated for everybody. Then, let’s address the things that need to be addressed, together.
N. Jamiyla Chisholm manages creative content at Barnard College and is the author of the upcoming memoir “The Community.” As a journalist, she focuses on culture, gender and sexuality, and history.