From a trek on foot from Fort Worth to DC to raise awareness about Juneteenth in 2016 to attending the president’s signing of a law recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday this year, Texan Opal Lee continues to leave her footprint in history.
Dubbed the “grandmother of Juneteenth” by President Joe Biden, Lee, 94, has spent 40 years celebrating Juneteenth in her hometown of Fort Worth and trying to raise more awareness of its importance beyond Texas.
Now a retired educator, her earliest memory of celebrating Juneteenth was picnics with her family in her birthplace of Marshall, Texas. The holiday’s importance to her stems from facing racial injustice throughout her own life, even on Juneteenth.
When she was 12, her childhood home was burned to the ground by white neighbors on June 19, 1939, because her family was Black.
“Mama and Daddy bought a house right over there,” Lee said, in an interview with Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It was a nice house. “The neighbors didn’t want us... They burned that place down.”
It was in June 2016 at age 89 that Lee decided she wanted to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday, which led to her Opal Walks 2 DC campaign. For that, she walked 2.5 miles in a different city to represent the two and a half years it took for enslaved people to be freed in Texas after the Emancipation Proclamation. Since then, she has made the walk an annual event.
“It’s one thing to celebrate as a culture, but for others to acknowledge it as allies and advocates it big,” she told the Fort Worth newspaper.
Lee was recently listed on the Forbes list of “50 Women Over 50” in the ‘impact’ category. Lee was also featured in a New York Times profile and interview detailing her journey to get Juneteenth signed as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden.
On June 17, Lee was present at the White House as President Biden signed Juneteenth as the 11th federal holiday in the country.
On that day, Lee’s Juneteenth dreams were finally fulfilled.
Lee shared her reaction to Juneteenth becoming a national holiday in the form of a tweet.
WOW! I'm so excited to see my lifelong mission of making Juneteenth a national holiday become reality. Finally, June 19 gets the recognition it deserves as an important part of US history & a unifier for our country. Let’s celebrate freedom from the 19 of June to the 4 of July! pic.twitter.com/B7qDW7mE9e— therealopallee (@Opalsw2dc) June 17, 2021
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced on Monday that the Texas Senate will be honoring Lee on Thursday, July 22, for her contributions toward Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. Senate Resolution #19 has been passed in her honor and a ceremony will be held on that day.
The live steam for the ceremony will start at 10 a.m. on Thursday and can be accessed here.