Freedom’s a long road. We fought for it in 1776, but it wasn’t until 1865 that our nation’s hard-won freedom was extended to all.
Now, Texas – along with Fort Worth – can take a bit of pride in helping secure a new federal holiday to both celebrate and reflect on the long road to freedom.
On Thursday, June 17, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Texas – and Fort Worth – were front and center in working to secure the holiday.
The Senate passed the bill for the holiday unanimously earlier this week and it passed the House with only a few naysayers a few days earlier.
The holiday celebrates the day in 1865 when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived at Galveston with news that the Civil War had ended and 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 and some 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in Southern states.
The next year, the now-free people started celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston and throughout Texas. Its observance has continued around the nation and the world. Events include concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and of General Order No. 3, which Granger delivered to the people of Texas. The General Order is worth noting: “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.”
“In 1776 the country was freed from the British, but the people were not all free,” Dee Evans, national director of communications of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, said in 2019. “June 19, 1865, was actually when the people and the entire country were actually free.”
As we noted, freedom is a long road.
Biden said at the signing that the day is more than just another federal holiday.
“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today,” he said before he officially established Juneteenth National Independence Day.
Biden’s audience included members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the lead sponsors of the legislation in the Senate, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Standing just to Biden’s right was Opal Lee, the 94-year-old Fort Worth woman who tirelessly campaigned for the holiday. For over 40 years, Lee has championed Juneteenth and for 20 years has supported it becoming a national holiday as a board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF).
After Biden signed the legislation in the East Room of the White House, Lee took her seat and held the pen as several people took photos. She’s a star, in case you haven’t noticed.
Lee is not the only Fort Worth connection in the effort to bring attention to Juneteenth.
Fort Worth filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples in 2020 released Miss Juneteenth, a film that uses a pageant titled after the holiday to examine relationships in a family. The film took home many awards and helped spread the news about Juneteenth around the country.
Before June 19 became a federal holiday, it was observed in the vast majority of states and the District of Columbia. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a holiday in 1980.
The office of Fort Worth’s new mayor, Mattie Parker, released a statement on the passage of the legislation.
“This movement, long overdue, was spearheaded by lifelong Fort Worth resident Opal Lee, who has waited 94 years to witness this moment in history. This legislation is historic for our country, and we are committed in Fort Worth to making sure this is more than just ceremonial. Juneteenth is a single, critical step of a much longer journey to understanding the history of enslaved people and how we move forward. Opal Lee embodies the best of humanity – determination, character, and an indomitable spirit. Opal Lee is a teacher, author, activist, and pillar of the Fort Worth community who has dedicated her life to service above self. We as a City are committed to standing united with Opal Lee’s vision of a world that could be. We challenge every business, organization, and individual in our community and beyond to lock arms with us and do the same.”
In observance of Juneteenth this year, Lee will again host her annual 2.5 mile walk through her hometown of Fort Worth. This year it will be streamed live. The walk symbolizes the 2.5 years it took for enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach the enslaved.
Two and a half miles. That’s about an hour of walking. An hour once a year to reflect on the much longer, much more challenging road to freedom.