The Mission of Opal Lee, Fort Worth's Grandmother of Juneteenth

Ms. Opal harnesses all her strength to create a nationwide federal holiday to honor the importance of Juneteenth.

The History of Juneteenth

Juneteenth, also known as "Emancipation Day" or "Freedom Day," is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of ending slavery in the United States; however, it was not a national holiday. Not until Opal Lee made it her mission. The formidable 95-year-old who goes by the moniker Ms. Opal 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!"

The enslaved in Texas had remained in servitude almost two and a half years after President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War's end. The anticipation of Watch Night, designated the eve of emancipation awaiting the news of freedom, did not come as news of freedom did not reach Texas until six months later. On June 19, 1865, Major General 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."

Ms. Opal Lee, "Grandmother of Juneteenth"
Ms. Opal published the book Juneteenth: A Children’s Story and also cowrote a stage play about the events of June 19, 1865. Elizabeth Lavin; Styling: Diamond Mahone; Gold Lamé Kimono: Courtesy La Vie Style House; Jewelry: Courtesy Elizabeth Hooper Studio

Early Juneteenth Celebrations

No one knows why the news had not made it to Texas until then. 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, astounded by the delayed proclamation, celebrated with jubilation, but also people were stunned, attempting to digest it all.

By 1866, people returned to Galveston on pilgrimages to the spot. Many 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, 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 African American people. But a resistance formed, barring celebrations on public property for these festivities. In 1872, local churches in Houston raised funds to purchase land that became Emancipation Park, changing this restriction. Ms. Opal published the book Juneteenth: A Children's Story and also co-wrote a stage play about the events of June 19, 1865.

For decades, Juneteenth was mainly a Texas thing. It moved to the West and North in later years during 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 had as well. Enter Ms. Opal.

Ms. Opal Lee, the Grandmother of Juneteenth
Elizabeth Lavin; Styling: Diamond Mahone; Dress: Courtesy Sai Sankoh

Enter Ms. Opal

History often goes from the personal to the national stage, 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 ten. 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 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, responsible for overseeing the city's Juneteenth celebrations. She watched as the events grew there, drawing as many as 30,000 attendees in the 1970s.As Ms. Opal remembers the holiday, there was always a 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, traditional side dishes (coleslaw, potato salad, and beans), and plenty of desserts (cakes, pies, and always watermelon).

At first, guests of honor of the enslaved people at the center table of this celebratory feast acknowledged the abundance associated with emancipation. 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. She realized that given the effort, current Juneteenth celebrations weren't enough and could have greater importance for African Americans.

Opal Lee petitioning to make Juneteenth a national holiday
Opal Lee (center) urges elected officials to make Juneteenth an annual, paid federal holiday. You can sign her petition at opalswalk2dc.com. Courtesy Unity Unlimited, Inc.

Juneteenth Becomes a Federal Holiday

In 2016, at 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 doing 2½ miles in the morning and the evening to honor the number of years it took for the news of emancipation to reach Texas finally. But after a few weeks, she changed her strategy by walking at Juneteenth events where she was to speak. The invitations poured in, and she participated in festivities in cities as far 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 in September of 2020 with a petition in hand. "We carried one and a half million signatures, but again, I was unable to make things happen!" says Ms. Opal. She traveled to the Capitol again in February 2021 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 would 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."

Her persistence and dedication to the cause paid off. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth, June 19, as a federal holiday. "Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments," President Biden said in a press conference. "They embrace them."

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