Opal Lee, “Grandmother of Juneteenth," urges community involvement
“Become a committee of one,” activist says in conversation with Nationwide
A Texas icon and a driving force behind the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday wants everyone to know that they can make a difference in their communities.
Opal Lee, a nationally recognized community activist who is known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth," joined Nationwide Chief Human Resources Officer Vinita Clements for a discussion on the importance of the holiday and the need for people to get and stay involved in their communities. In honor of the one-year anniversary of Juneteenth being recognized as a federal holiday, Nationwide invited the 95-year-old Lee to talk about her life’s work, including her local activism and the years-long effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
“Juneteenth means freedom,” Lee said. “In fact, I advocate that we celebrate from the 19th of June to the 4th of July. I believe that is celebrating freedom.”
The oldest, nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery, Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two-and-a-half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The legacy of Juneteenth shows the values of deep hope and never giving up in uncertain times, and it marks the nation’s second Independence Day.
At 90 years of age in 2017, Lee began a walking campaign from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to the need for celebrating Juneteenth nationally. She walked 2.5 miles in cities across the country to represent the 2.5 years it took after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation for enforcement to reach Texas. In 2019, she launched an online petition campaign that garnered over 1.6 million signatures to continue the crusade for federal holiday observance.
After years of activism by Lee and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF), Pres. Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021. Lee stood next to him in the White House East Room as he signed the act into law.
“I was humbled. I was thankful. I was grateful. It was so joyful,” Lee said. “I don’t think we can rest on our laurels now that we have Juneteenth as a national holiday. There are so many disparities we need to address.”
Lee has a history of local involvement and activism, which began early. At the age of 12, her family’s home was destroyed on June 19, 1939, by a mob angered that hers was the first Black family to move into the Terrell Heights neighborhood in Fort Worth’s 7th ward. She noted that neither she nor her family allowed that to deter them from making an impact in the community.
Lee began her career in education and over the years has served on many boards and with many organizations, including Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, Habitat for Humanity, and the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Fort Worth Black populace. During her tenure as Chairman of the Community Food Bank, the organization received the $1.3 million, 33,000-square-foot facility that now serves 500 families a day. Currently, she is the oldest living board member of the NJOF, which is working to establish a National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth.
“I’d say to the younger ones, make yourself a committee of one. It’s your responsibility to see that these things are changed,” Lee said. “You can’t depend on anyone else to do it. And so, get busy. The bible tells us that we are our brother’s keeper, so let’s act like it.”
For more information about Ms. Opal Lee and her contribution to establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, visit https://www.opalswalk2dc.com/.