Juneteenth: Opal Lee makes her annual walk following national holiday designation

Opal Lee at her annual Juneteenth walk on June 19, 2021. (Photo by Harriet B. Harral )

After years of working to make Juneteenth a national holiday, Fort Worth’s Opal Lee, took her annual 2.5 mile walk on Saturday, knowing that vision has been realized.

Often called the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Lee celebrated the day as she has for many years, walking 2.5 miles to symbolize the 2.5 years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach the enslaved population in Texas.

But this year was different. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a bill to set aside Juneteenth, or June 19th, as a federal holiday.

“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” he said at the ceremony, with Lee standing at his side.

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Biden gave her one of the pens he used to sign the legislation.

Lee, a Fort Worth educator, is the oldest living board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF) that was founded and led by the late Dr. Ronald Myers. As in the past, Lee, 94, was once again making that walk from Evans Avenue Plaza to the Tarrant County Courthouse. She was joined by plenty of others, including Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and District 8 Councilman Chris Nettles.  

At a virtual appearance at the Fort Worth’s Downtown Rotary Club on Friday, June 18, Lee said she had kept a promise when Juneteenth became a holiday.

“I’m so glad all of you is there, and that you are celebrating Juneteenth,” she said. “And I tell you, I have said repeatedly, when Juneteenth became a federal holiday I was going to do a holy dance. And I tell you, I’ve done it. You didn’t see it, but I’ve done it.”

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Lee also revealed what she said to the president during the signing.

“I want to tell you what I said to the president,” she said. “I said I want one of those pens because when I get a first-class museum in Fort Worth, and we do plan to have one, this pen’s going to be on display, and so I want everybody to get pens and I’ll take one back to Texas.”

Lee said it is the responsibility of everyone to teach children – and others – about the meaning of Juneteenth.

“I want you to know that I wrote a book which is called Juneteenth for Children, because we must start early, teaching our children our history, because I firmly believe if people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love,” she said. “And I feel it is each of our responsibility to teach one, each one teach one. Now you know people who aren’t on the same page you are on, so teach him how to love, teach him the things that will make him understand how we can work together through the spells and disparities in our land … Each one of us, teach one of us. It’s our duty, it’s a legacy we must leave to our children, we don’t have guns, but we’ve got a mind and the technology that’s before us can be used to make us first class citizens, which we’re not at this point.”

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Lee’s memories of Juneteenth include June 19, 1939, when a mob of white supremacists vandalized and set fire to her family’s home in Fort Worth. She watched as her home burned to the ground and officials did nothing to stop the violence.

Lee spent more than four decades working to highlight Juneteenth and turn it from a community event into a nationally recognized holiday. In 2016, she walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to the day.

The celebration started with the freed slaves of Galveston. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, it could not be enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived at Galveston on June 19, 1865, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. That was more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia.

Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said: “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.”

Often celebrated at first with church picnics and speeches, the holiday spread across the nation and internationally as Black Texans moved elsewhere.

The vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or a day of recognition, like Flag Day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington, and hundreds of companies give workers a day off for Juneteenth.

Speaking at the Rotary Club meeting along with Lee, Tarrant County Commissioner for Precinct 1, Roy Brooks, explained the meaning of the day.

“When the founding fathers of this country sat down and penned the sacred documents that established these United States of America, when they wrote these words, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,’ a lot of the people in this room were left out of that statement.

“That statement did not include people of color, neither did it include women. What they should have written was that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all white property-owning men are equal.’ Nevertheless, the words that they wrote gave this country something towards which to strive. And ever since that time in 1776, when those words were written, America has been striving to get it right. America has been striving to create that more perfect union.

“To be sure, we have made a lot of progress as a nation toward the achievement of that goal. The goal being to see each other as equals and to create a more perfect union. When General Gordan Granger arrived on the shores of Galveston on June the 19th, 1865, it was one more milestone in America’s attempt to get it right.”