The 94-year-old whose lifelong mission has been making Juneteenth a federal holiday

Opal Lee's dream is now reality.
A memorial sign in Austin, Texas dedicated to Juneteenth.
A memorial sign in Austin, Texas dedicated to Juneteenth. Photo credit Montinique Monroe/Getty Images
By , NewsRadio 1080 KRLD

When Opal Lee was born in 1926, Carter G. Woodson -- known as the ‘father of Black history’ -- had just commissioned the very first celebration of Negro History Week. The week of recognition would decades later become our modern Black History Month.

Woodson dedicated his life to honoring the contributions of Black people. He believed descendants of the African diaspora should be proud of their heritage and wanted all Americans to recognize their largely overlooked achievements.

You could call Opal Lee the ‘grandmother of Juneteenth.’

The 94-year old who has made getting Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday her life’s mission modestly describes herself as a “little, old lady in tennis shoes.” Ms. Opal Lee is sharp and witty with a jolly sense of humor and an infectious laugh.

Asked about the distinction between Juneteenth and Independence Day, “Woo, girl!” she exclaimed to the New York Times. “Slaves weren’t free. You know that, don’t you? “

The June 19 holiday marks the actual end of slavery in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but it took two and a half years -- until June 19, 1865 -- for word of their freedom to reach Black slaves in Galveston, Texas.

“The fact is none of us are free till we’re all free. Knowing that slaves didn’t get the word for two and a half years after the emancipation, can’t you imagine how those people felt?” Lee asked.

For Lee, the singular day of celebrating emancipation has grown into weeks of campaigning and educating the public about the important milestone in Black history. In Texas, the first state to make Juneteenth a holiday, the festivities include a parade, prayer breakfast, art installations and exhibits, a gospel concert, and a beauty pageant. Opal Lee is a staple at most.

She can recall growing up in Marshall, Texas, where hot, humid Juneteenth celebrations at the fairgrounds were larger-than-life family gatherings that rivaled Thanksgiving and Christmas.

All of her childhood memories growing up in the deeply segregated South aren’t fond. She can still vividly remember the night a mob of 500 incensed white rioters bombarded her family’s home with rocks and stones, set it on fire, and drove them out of town.

"The people didn't want us ... the police couldn't control the mob,” Lee told ABC13’s Cory McGinnis. My father came with a gun. And police told them if he busted a cap, they'd let the mob have us.”

Coincidentally, the date was June 19, 1939.

Whether watching her family’s home burn down as a 13-year old on Juneteeth was the impetus for her life’s work, she honestly doesn’t know.

Nor is she vengeful about the racially motivated attack. “If we could just love one another, you know? If you could get past the color of my skin and love me like you do that boy next door to you.”

Opal Lee doesn’t just talk the talk. She literally walks the walk.

In 2016, as she approached 90-years old, Opal Lee decided she needed to do more to spotlight her fight for getting the federal holiday. She laced up her shoes and walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., traveling two and a half miles each day to signify the two and a half years slaves in Galveston waited to get news of their freedom.

“I decided, if a little old lady in tennis shoes was walking toward Washington, somebody would take notice,” she told KTRK.

This year she is walking again. But this time it will be to celebrate the newly minted Juneteenth holiday, after Congress passed the bill this week.

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