Look at this beautiful woman …
This is Opal Lee, age 94, and on this, the first time Juneteenth is being celebrated as an official U.S. holiday, I want to tell you a little bit about Ms. Lee who is known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth. While yesterday I wrote a bit about the negativity of some racists toward the new holiday, Juneteenth, today I want to put aside the negative and focus on the positive … and the voice of Ms. Opal Lee.
When Opal Lee was growing up in Texas, she would spend Juneteenth picnicking with her family, first in Marshall, where she was born, then in Sycamore Park in Fort Worth, near the home she moved into at age 10. Ms. Lee’s paternal grandmother was born into bondage in Louisiana, and while Ms. Lee, born in 1927, was not a slave, she felt the cruel edge of racism at a very early age.
She and her family lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in Fort Worth. On Juneteenth 1939, when Ms. Lee was 12, a mob of 500 white supremacists set fire to her home and vandalized it. The structure was destroyed, and no arrests were made. Says Lee of that time …
“People gathered. The papers say that it was 500 strong, and that the police couldn’t control them. My dad came home with a gun, and the police told him if he busted a cap, they’d let that mob have him. If they had given us an opportunity to stay there and be their neighbors, they would have found out we didn’t want any more than what they had – a decent place to stay, jobs that paid, to be able to go to school in the neighborhood, even if it was a segregated school. We would have made good neighbors, but they didn’t give us an opportunity. And I felt like everybody needs an opportunity.”
And that incident was the spark that lit Ms. Lee’s subsequent decades of activism. Ms. Lee earned her college degree and became a teacher. She joined the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which oversaw local Juneteenth celebrations. But she said that after more than 40 years as a community activist, she “really doubled down in 2016” by “going bigger.”
At the tender age of 89, she decided to start with a walking campaign in cities along a route from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. It wasn’t a straight line. Over several weeks, Lee arrived in cities where she’d been invited to speak and walked 2½ miles to symbolize the 2½ years that it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn they were free. She made the entire 1,400-mile trek from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington D.C.
“I knew I just had to spread the word about Juneteenth to everybody. I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice.”
Since then, Ms. Lee has become known far and wide as the Grandmother of Juneteenth. So, it only made sense that on Thursday when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, Ms. Opal Lee was invited to attend the signing.
Not only that, but the President himself called her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday” and got down on one knee to greet her in the audience. During his speech before the signing, Biden asked the audience to give Lee, who was seated in the front row, a standing ovation. And after he signed the bill into law, he gave Ms. Lee the first pen he used to sign it.
“I have to say to you, I have only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president – not because I did it, you did it, Democrats and Republicans. It’s an enormous, enormous honor.”
What follows is a part of an interview between Ms. Lee and the New York Times last year on Juneteenth:
What is your first memory of celebrating Juneteenth?
It was in Marshall, Texas, where I was born. We’d go to the fairgrounds to celebrate. It was like going to Christmas or Thanksgiving, we had such a good time.
Some people still compare Independence Day to Juneteenth. How would you explain the type of freedom and community that comes from celebrating Juneteenth?
The difference between Juneteenth and the 4th of July? Woo, girl! The fact is none of us are free till we’re all free. Knowing that slaves didn’t get the word for two and a half years after the emancipation, can’t you imagine how those people felt? They’d been watching — that’s what they call Watch Night services — every New Year’s, thinking freedom was coming. And then to find out they were free, even two and a half years after everybody else.
So, the 4th of July? Slaves weren’t free. You know that, don’t you? And so we just celebrate the hell out of the 4th of July, so I suggest that if we’re going to do some celebrating of freedom, that we have our festival, our educational components, our music, from June the 19 — Juneteenth — to the 4th of July. Now that would be celebrating freedom.
How do you think the protests for Black lives that are happening around the country have shaped the way that people understand Juneteenth?
We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free, and we aren’t free yet. There’s so many disparities. You know, we need some decent education and some decent jobs that pay money, and we need health care and all kinds of things and if people would just get together and address these disparities, we’d be well on our way to being the greatest country in the world.
Right now lots of companies are making Juneteenth an official holiday. How does it feel to see your vision coming to fruition?
Ooh girl, I could do a holy dance. I’m so happy to see things coming to fruition and the fact that we are almost there making it a holiday. We started out talking about 100,000 signatures and now we’re saying let’s take a million signatures to Congress to let them know that it’s not just one little old lady in tennis shoes.
I hope they understand that we’re talking about a holiday like Presidents’ Day or Flag Day. We’re not talking about a paid holiday. However, I’m delighted to have the big companies give their employees the day off with pay.
What changes do you hope to see in our country beyond having Juneteenth recognized on a national level?
If we would unify, if we would get together and do something about homelessness, and do something about people having decent housing, and decent food, and they would have not only a place to stay but a decent education.
If we could just love one another, you know? If you could get past the color of my skin and love me like you do that boy next door to you.
And those, my friends, are words for us all. If Ms. Lee has one message for us it is that one – get past the colour of people’s skin and just love them! Stop the hate, the violence, the petty bickering and … just love one another. Life is too short to waste it with bigotry of any sort. And on that note, I wish you all a very Happy Juneteenth!