Meet Opal Lee—the 94-Year-Old Activist Known as the 'Grandmother of Juneteenth'
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring an end to slavery in the U.S.—on paper, at least. It would be another two-and-a-half years before enslaved people in Texas were told they had been emancipated.
Two-and-a-half years is a lengthy delay even by 19th-century standards for news transmission. There are competing explanations as to why it took so long for the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. It’s been suggested that Lincoln’s messenger was killed en route, or that Lincoln’s government itself conspired to keep the news quiet until after Texas’s harvest season. It’s also possible that the Union just wasn’t able to enact new policies in Confederate states until the Civil War was over.
Whatever the case, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and finally informed the enslaved population that they were no longer enslaved. The anniversary of that date, called “Juneteenth,” gave rise to celebrations first in Texas and eventually all over the country. In 1980, Texas recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday, and 47 other states have since recognized it in some way, too.
But it’s still not a national holiday—a situation that 94-year-old Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” has dedicated the last several years to changing.
Most of Lee’s early Juneteenth experiences were jubilant, but not all. In 1939, when Lee was 12 years old, about 500 white supremacists burned down her family’s house in Fort Worth, Texas, and suffered no legal consequences. This violent display of racial injustice was a stark example of what would later become Lee’s mantra and motivator: “None of us are free until we are all free.”
Lee has spent most of her adult life working to further freedom in all its iterations—in education, housing, and other ways—in her Fort Worth community. She’s been an elementary school teacher, school counselor, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, and member of countless humanitarian organizations. She also helped establish Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, a foundation that secures housing for underserved citizens, and the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society, whose mission is to “research, collect, preserve and share” the history and contributions of Tarrant County’s Black population.
Juneteenth is a vital part of that history and a symbol of the ongoing fight for freedom—and not just at the local or state level. So, in 2016, she kickstarted a movement to get Juneteenth the federal recognition it deserves. As Southern Living reports, Lee set off on a walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., in 2.5-mile increments, signifying how long it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn of their freedom. She didn’t walk the whole way, eventually choosing to hold a 2.5-mile walk in whatever city someone asked her to attend a Juneteenth celebration. In this way, “Opal’s Walk 2 DC” began to attract a national audience.
In addition to her annual ambulatory tradition, Lee launched a petition on Change.org to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The initial target was 100,000 signatures—it currently has more than 1.6 million. The movement has reached the legislative sphere, too: This past February, Lee helped members of Congress introduce a new version of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which, if passed, would give Juneteenth national holiday status. (The original bill was blocked by the Senate last summer.)
But Lee isn’t idling while she waits for legislators to decide the fate of the bill. This Juneteenth, she’ll be walking again—and she’s inviting you to do so with her, wherever you are. You can find information on how to register here, and you can also stream Lee’s walk live on FOX SOUL’s YouTube channel this Saturday, June 19, at 11 a.m. EST.
[h/t Southern Living]