“I’m not just going to sit and rock, you know?” the determined “Grandmother of Juneteenth” told CNN. “The Lord is going to have to catch me.”
Days later, the spirited nonagenarian shouted with delight as she watched Congress pass a bill to make Juneteenth – June 19 – a nationwide holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
“I’ve got so many different feelings all gurgling up here – I don’t know what to call them all,” she told CNN affiliate KTVT in Fort Worth, Texas, where she lives.
Right now she plans to savor the moment. But the woman who spent years fighting for Juneteenth stresses the work that’s left to do to push back against racism.
“We’ve got all of these disparities that we’ve got to address and I mean all of them. While we’ve got some momentum I hope we can get some of it done. We can have one America if we try,” she told KTVT.
A child stung by racism
As a little girl, Lee was the victim of a traumatic event, her first undeniable experience with racism.
One week after nine-year-old Lee moved with her family to an all-White neighborhood, a mob surrounded their home and threatened their lives.
“My dad came with a gun and the police told him if he busted a cap, they would let the mob have us,” she recalls.
Lee’s parents sent her to friends several blocks away “under the cover of darkness,” she tells CNN.
“They burned furniture. They set the house on fire. It was terrible. It really was.”
Lee says outside newspapers in Texas reported the crime – but local papers from the community where the violence took place ignored it.
The date of the attack was Juneteenth.
Lee says her parents never spoke of the incident again.
“They buckled down, they worked hard. They bought another home, but we never discussed it,” she explains.
“I just know if we had had an opportunity to stay a while they would have found out … we were just like them.”
“We wanted the same thing they wanted. A place to live,” she recalls.
“We wanted food, jobs that would pay a wage.”
A woman fights injustice
Lee was 89-years-old when she decided “something can be done” to make Juneteenth a formal and nationally recognized holiday. She grew up celebrating the holiday in Marshall, Texas, and says the special day felt like Christmas.
“We would go to a place called ‘the fairgrounds’ and there would be baseball games and food,” she recalls.
“There would be music – and food. There would be games of all kind – and food.”
But, it wasn’t until adulthood that Lee learned the true significance of the day with the help of a mentor. As an educator for more than twenty-five years, she helped organize citywide Juneteenth festivals that she says boasted thousands in attendance.
“It was pure festival. I mean we even took exhibits from the historical society to the park,” she shared.
“We had festivals that garnered 30,000 people in a 3-day period, the papers said 10,000 people a day.”
On one occasion, Lee says the park hosting the event closed at 10 p.m. But instead of shutting down the festivities, she found a way to keep the lights on and the celebration going.
“I got on a flatbed truck, stuck the light thing back in – We had festival until dawn,” Lee laughs.
In 2016, the activist turned her focus nationally. The great-great-grandmother mobilized a team, launched an online petition and pledged to walk 1,400 miles from her Texas home to Washington, DC. Lee was dead-serious about lacing up her shoes and making the trek.
“I really had planned to walk that 1,400 miles,” Lee shares.
“But my team said no.”
Undeterred, she logged almost 300 miles on foot for the cause and continued to push her movement to appear across the country.
Honor the enslaved. Educate the future
For Lee, Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom. In honor of the day, the Texas native hosted annual 2.5-mile walks to commemorate the seldom told history of some 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, who did not learn of their freedom until two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I am adamant that the schools teach the truth,” she exclaims.
“We have to heal. You’ve got to know what happened and you’ve got to heal from that.”
As a former educator whose job involved social work, Lee now strives to ensure future generations know about Juneteenth. She authored a children’s book entitled, “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story” which is available for purchase on Amazon.
Before President Biden signed the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, 49 states had already recognized the day. But for Opal Lee, federal recognition is a crucial milepost on a mission that she insists is far from over.
“I’ve got children, grandchildren, great-grands and even some great-great-grands and I’m wanting them to have a much better world than the world I came up in,” she shares.
“… I want so much for my family and so I think I can do something about it before I go.”
In honor of Juneteenth, there are a number of organizations you can work with to advance justice and continue the fight toward racial equity.
Get involved. Advance justice
- The NAACP Legal Defense Fund was founded under the leadership of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The organization champions racial justice, equality and a more inclusive society. Their scope of impact includes criminal justice, economic justice, and scholarships.
- For more than 100 years, the National Urban League has worked to uplift Black and African Americans through economic empowerment. The organization promotes job readiness training, education, health and wealth opportunities – while defending civil rights. To find an affiliate chapter near you, click here.
- Know Your Rights Camp maintains a legal-defense fund and has teamed up with attorneys nationwide to provide representation to Black and brown people who may be victims of injustice.
- LIVEFREE is a justice-focused organization of faith leaders and their congregants. Two of their initiatives include violence prevention and incarceration reform.