The Mission of Opal Lee, Fort Worth's Grandmother of Juneteenth
Ms. Opal harnessed all of her force trying to create a nationwide federal holiday.
Editor's Note: On June 17, 2021, a month after this article was published, President Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Juneteenth, also known as "Emancipation Day" or "Freedom Day," is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States; however, it is not a national holiday. All of that will change if it has anything to do with the will of Opal Lee, a formidable 94-year-old who goes by the moniker Ms. Opal, who believed Juneteenth (June 19) should be a federal holiday celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance of the Fourth of July because, as she reminds everyone, "We weren't free in 1776!"
In fact, the enslaved in Texas had remained in bondage almost two and a half years after President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War's end. They must have thought that Watch Night (as they had designated the eve of emancipation) had passed them by. Then on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union forces read General Order No. 3 at several landmarks in the port city of Galveston.
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."
No one knows for sure why the news had not made it to Texas, but suggestions range from the deliberate withholding of the information by enslavers to ensure the labor force, to plantation owners wanting to get in one more cotton crop, to the murder of Lincoln's messenger. Those rendered free must have been astounded by the delayed proclamation; reports tell of jubilation but also of people wandering off dumbstruck attempting to digest it all.
By 1866, the news had been well processed, and people returned to Galveston on pilgrimages to the spot. Many of the early Juneteenth (a combination of "June" and "nineteenth") celebrations were centered around churches and honored those who had toiled in Texas fields. Early images show flower-draped carts and guests and celebrants decked out in elegant finery. There were prayers, parades, singing, and public readings of the proclamation. The main goals of these early gatherings were honoring the formerly enslaved and lifting up African American people. But a resistance formed, and they were barred from using public property for these festivities. In Houston, that changed in 1872 when local churches raised funds and purchased land that became Emancipation Park.
For decades, Juneteenth was mainly a Texas thing. It moved to the West and North in the later years of the Great Migration, but by the 1950s, it had almost fallen by the wayside, only to be revived by the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Since then, it has grown in importance. Texas adopted Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980, and in recent years, all but three states have as well. Enter Ms. Opal.
History often goes from the personal to the national stage, and so it was with Opal Lee. Her first memories of the holiday were very pleasant: picnicking with her family at the fairgrounds in Marshall, Texas, where she was born, or later in Fort Worth's Sycamore Park, where her family moved when she was 10. However, the fond remembrances soon turned harrowing. On June 19, 1939, when she was 12, white vigilantes burned down her home and threw out all of the furniture. The family remained in the area, and things quieted down a bit. But Ms. Opal's connections with the holiday would only strengthen over time.
After having four children, she earned a master's degree and worked as a schoolteacher and counselor. When she retired, she became involved with The Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which was responsible for overseeing the city's Juneteenth celebrations. There, she watched as the events grew, drawing as many as 30,000 attendees in the 1970s.
As Ms. Opal remembers the holiday, there was always barbecue. "In Fort Worth, the men worked at what were called the packinghouses. Those companies would give them all the meat for the barbecue," she says. There was also red soda along with traditional side dishes (coleslaw, potato salad, and beans) and plenty of desserts (cakes, pies, and always watermelon).
At first, the feasting acknowledged the abundance that came with emancipation, with those who had been enslaved as guests of honor at the central tables. Gradually, Juneteenth transformed into a grand holiday when high-stepping parades, beauty pageants, and cakewalks were as likely to be included in the ceremonies as preaching and remembering the trials of enslavement. As it evolved, Ms. Opal also grew as an activist in her community and realized that, given the effort entailed, Juneteenth as it was celebrated just wasn't enough and could have greater importance for African Americans.
In 2016, at the age of 89, Ms. Opal decided to widen her Juneteenth focus and get it accepted as a national holiday. That has now become her life's quest. She began with a symbolic walking campaign from her Fort Worth home to Washington, D.C. She set out with a daily goal of doing2 ½ miles in the morning and the evening to honor the number of years that it took for the news of emancipation to finally reach Texas. But after a few weeks, she changed her strategy and moved toward walking only where she was invited to speak at Juneteenth events. The invitations poured in, and she was asked to participate in festivities as far-flung as Denver, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin.
In January 2017, Ms. Opal journeyed to Washington, D.C., to advance her campaign and meet with then President Obama, but, "I didn't get what I wanted; he was out of town," she recalls ruefully. Not deterred, she returned last September with a petition in hand (you can sign the petition at opalswalk2dc.com). "We carried one and a half million signatures, but again, I was unable to make things happen!" says Ms. Opal, who traveled to the Capitol again this February to reintroduce the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. As she said that day, "I refuse to let the efforts we've made die on the vine."
Ms. Opal believed that by achieving this goal, the day will return to its original intent of educating, celebrating, informing, and bringing all people together. "I don't mean just Black people," she muses. "Nobody is free until we're all free."