Texas native Opal Lee has seen a lot of history in her 96 years. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. In this century, she voted for the first African American president of the United States.
Lee herself has made history, too. In 2016, at age 89, the retired schoolteacher and longtime community activist took up the cause of elevating Juneteenth as a federal holiday. And she succeeded.
The federal holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, signed earlier by President Abraham Lincoln, which freed enslaved people. (After the U.S. Civil War ended, Texas was the last former Confederate state to recognize emancipation.)
Today, Juneteenth is a day to recognize the contributions of Black Americans and their resilience.
Years of service follow early trauma
In 1939, when Lee was 12, white rioters descended on her family’s home, located in a white neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas. The police arrived, but couldn’t control the mob, which invaded the house and burned the furniture. The destruction forced Lee’s family to move several blocks away.
After graduating from high school, Lee married and had four children, later earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. She became an educator and a home-school counselor, working until 1977, when she was 50.
Since then, Lee has devoted herself to her community, volunteering to help house the needy and operating a food bank, farm and community garden. But it wasn’t enough. So Lee adopted a new mission — to ensure that Juneteenth, a holiday long embraced by Black Americans, would be recognized as a federal holiday and celebrated by everyone in the United States.
Realizing a dream
Lee began a walking campaign in 2016, which took her from Fort Worth to other cities en route to her destination: the city of Washington. Over a span of several weeks, she appeared in cities where she had been invited to speak. Afterward, she would always walk the first 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) toward her next stopping point. The distance referenced the 2 ½ years that it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn they were free.
“I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice,” she told the television network CNN.
CNN and other news outlets paid attention.
After its 2016 debut, Lee’s walking campaign became an annual event — until June 2021, when legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden. Lee, by then known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” was invited to the White House signing ceremony, where she received a standing ovation.
Texas State Senator Borris Miles describes Lee as a “living legend,” but even at 96 she is not resting on her laurels. She published Juneteenth: A Children’s Story in recent years and plans to continue educating others about Juneteenth and the effects of racism.
Today, she is raising funds for a National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth, expected to open in 2024. And she has plans to take on joblessness, homelessness, health care issues and climate change.
“Everybody has a part to play,” she says.