Also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day in the United States, Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of some 250,000 enslaved people in Texas in 1865. Although it is not the day slavery legally ended, it is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States.
In fact, slavery had ended in 1863 by an executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation that called for the immediate freedom of slaves throughout the country. Unfortunately, many enslaved people, especially those in the south, remained un-free. It was only in June of 1865, after the Civil War had ended in April, that Union General Gordon Granger and his troops traveled to Galveston, Texas to announce “General Orders No. 3” before the slaves found out about the Emancipation of Proclamation.
Seven decades later, on June 19, 1939, which was Juneteenth, white rioters vandalized and burned a home on Fort Worth’s south side belonging to a Black family. The rioters, numbering about 500, were angry that Otis Flake and his family had moved into their neighborhood so they forced the family out of their home and set it on fire. Opal Lee was part of the family. She was 12 years old at the time.
“The people didn’t want us. They started gathering. The paper said the police couldn’t control the mob. My father came with a gun and police told them if he busted a cap they’d let the mob have us,” Lee, who is now known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth”, recalled in an interview with ABC7 News. “They started throwing things at the house and when they left, they took out the furniture and burned it and burned the house.”
“I’m not sure if that’s the catalyst for me wanting Juneteenth, for everybody to know about it,” said Lee, who advocated for turning the commemorative day into a federally recognized national holiday. “It’s freedom, you know. And not freedom for Black people or Texas people. It’s freedom for everyone.”
Lee was born in Marshall, Texas, where she grew up seeing a lot of people celebrating Juneteenth. But when her family later moved to Fort Worth, those huge Juneteenth celebrations were absent. People only celebrated with friends, she said.
That changed later when Lee met a woman named Lenora Rolla, who founded the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society after the city gave her the duty to gather the history of African Americans in early Fort Worth, as pointed out by LX News. Through Rolla’s research, she realized that there were only a few programs or activities commemorating Juneteenth.
So she ended up working with Lee to raise more awareness about Juneteenth and make it a grand celebration. Instead of the private parties that it came with, Juneteenth was now being celebrated in local parks, attended by thousands. Lee was almost always at those celebrations, making sure that her children and grandchildren were involved and knew the significance of the celebration.
By 2016, many had noticed her work to get more people involved in Juneteenth celebrations. And it was that year that she decided to walk from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to the nation’s capital in a move to get Juneteenth named a national holiday.
She wanted to make the 1,440-mile trek from her home to Washington DC to talk to people about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday.
“I was about 89, I’m pushing 90. And I don’t see anything I’ve done, and I feel like there is something more that I can do. My idea was to walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., and that surely somebody would notice a little old lady in tennis shoes. If I left in September 2016, I got to Washington on January 10th, 2017,” she said.
Lee walked two and a half miles every morning and every evening to mark the two and a half years it took for the news of freedom to reach Galveston, Texas in 1865. According to LX News, she walked from Fort Worth to Arlington to Grand Prairie to Dallas. And as she walked, people walked with her, including some of her family members. Many cities across the country including Denver, Philadelphia, Tuskegee, Shreveport, Chicago, and Atlanta welcomed Lee and her team.
Lee and her crew used the walks to gather support for their petition asking for Juneteenth to be made a national holiday. Her goal was 100,000 signatures, but she got 1.5 million signatures by September 2020, and she took those signatures to Congress.
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Lee was at the White House for the signing. Biden described her as the “grandmother of the movement” to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. He took a knee in front of Lee before signing the bill.
“I was overjoyed. I was ecstatic,” Lee told ABC News while reacting to Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. “I was so happy I could have done a holy dance.”
Today, the former teacher and activist is also elated that she owns the lot her family’s home was on when racists burnt it in 1939.
“I think it’s full circle. We’re going to put a house here and I’m going to move in it! My house is so full of stuff, they’re going to make a museum out of it,” she said, according to LX News.
Lee was recently honored as the Fort Worth Inc. magazine 2022 Person of the Year.