By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
She is “more than just a little old lady in tennis shoes,” as she describes herself.
Known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, 94 year old civil rights activist Opal Lee’s vision and dream of making Juneteenth a federal holiday came true when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act June 17 at the White House with Lee present. Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday in the U.S.
“There were a whole lot of people that were involved as well in making Juneteenth a federal holiday,” Lee said.
She thanked the president for the historic legislation that was signed into law.
“It is such a joyous occasion and I have all these mixed emotions and I think about things that have occurred and all the things that need to occur,” Lee said. “I’m thankful and grateful. I just don’t know how to describe it.”
Lee, who lived through the height of racial injustice when she was a child growing up in Marshall in the late 1930’s, experienced trauma that scarred her as a child during Juneteenth, a day celebrating the end of slavery in Texas.
Her family had moved to an all-White neighborhood in Marshall during that time when she was 12 years old. On June 19, 1939, White rioters vandalized and burned her home. Her family was forced to flee for their lives. The event is one of the reasons why she was later determined to make Juneteenth a national federal holiday.
She and her family moved to Fort Worth. In 1943, she graduated from I.M. Terrell High School – the city’s first Black high school – at the age of 16. She went on to Wiley College in Marshall where she received her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education in 1952. She later earned has a master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance from North Texas State University. Afterward, she returned home where she became a teacher for the Fort Worth Independent School District for 15 years.
Retired and still living in Fort Worth, she decided in 2016 that it was time to take action on her dreams of making Juneteenth a national recognized day.
“Well, I had this mentor, the Rev. Dr. Ronald Meyers, who introduced me to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation where I became a board member,” she said. “He was a big man and a Baptist minister. He was a medical doctor, a jazz musician all rolled into one. And he was determined to make Juneteenth a national holiday. He didn’t live to see it. But I hope he’s smiling down and saying you got it done.”
Determined to make the day a national holiday, Lee began her decades-long campaign. She started by walking around 2.5 miles each year, the number of years that it took for the Emancipation Proclamation news to reach Texas.
In 2016, she decided with others to walk from Fort Worth where she lived, to Washington D.C. in order to ask President Barack Obama to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Due to her age of being 89 years old at the time and her health, she, along with others, took bus rides to reach the White House and arrived there in January 2017. Though her dreams did not come to fruition back then, she continued to march in other cities such as Madison, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Atlanta, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. She also started an online petition to get others to support her cause on making Juneteenth a national holiday. The petition has garnered over 1.5 million signatures.
She reflected on her journey and influences in her life.
“I had a mother who was single minded,” Lee said. “Her family came first, then the church. And she was just focused. And you learn to be focused on things that you are passionate about and from her I learned that. Juneteenth is something that Dr. Meyers gave me the opportunity to be a part of that. So I’ve been told that if you start something, you just don’t let it go until you finish it. And so now that it has finished, there are so many other things that need to be attended to. I am going to take a deep breath and get busy doing those things.”
Despite her achievements in social activism, Lee said there is much more work to be done to achieve social justice.
“There’s so much that needs to be attended to in today’s world such as total joblessness and homelessness and criminals, the criminal justice system, climate change, and there’s just so much that needs our attention,” Lee said. “I have no idea how to go about it. I don’t have a plan. But I’m going to ask people who are knowledgeable about these things what we should do. How can we alleviate the situation and make things better. I hope that I can be a part of getting that done.”
Lee also expressed concern about recent legislation that Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law regarding getting rid of teaching about critical race theory in Texas schools grades K-12.
“I know the governor is not going to be there forever,” she said. “So you don’t worry about those kinds of things because it is going to change back to whatever it is he is doing now. You just hope that too much damage is not done until he is out of office. But you concentrate on what you can do. We can teach our children. We got community groups, we got teachers, libraries. We will survive because we always have.”
She also compared the education system of her generation to today’s school.
“The teachers were first rate,” she said. “In fact, when we were integrated, they took our teachers to the White schools. Because our teachers were spot on. We were taught that it was our responsibility to move things forward. We were taught that everything had to be excellent. We were educated. No half stepping. We were educated and for that I am so grateful.”
Today, incidents such as the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives matter movement made Lee realize that the work towards racial equality continues.
“I feel that the young people are saying to us enough is enough,” Lee said. “And things are going to change. And I’m sure they are. I know that the Black Lives Matter youngsters are not anarchists. They have a legitimate concern. And if people will listen, we’ll get some things done. People are saying, waiting for the violence to subside so we can go back to what’s normal. But we’re not going back to that normal. So we need to be about the business of accepting change. And I’m sure the change is going to be better for all of us. I, for one, am going to be delighted to see the change.”
Lee said she has this message or advice to future educators and for future generations.
“To teachers, you have the minds of the young people in your hands,” Lee said. “Teach them well. Teach them the truth. In Texas, our governor’s asking us not to teach. Bless his heart. He does not realize that the truth will set us free. I don’t know what rock he has been under. I want to let him know that you got to teach the truth and heal from it. We got to heal from that because racism and all these other isms are what is making us not move forward since we were enslaved. Teachers, you are the ones to pass on to our youngsters the truth and let them take it from there. All of this can be done without animosity. All of this can be done now, not next year, or the year after. And all of us can participate. I advocate that each one teach one.”
Despite Abbott’s efforts to get rid of critical race theory in the classroom, Lee continues to educate students outside the classroom about Juneteenth.
She has published a book for elementary school students called Juneteenth: A Children’s Story. It is for grades K-5 and teaches about the history and importance of Juneteenth and helps teachers discuss this sensitive topic in the classroom.
Lee will turn 95 in October and is determined to continue to educate and fight for justice.
“I’ve told people over and over again that if people can be taught to hate, then they can be taught to love,” she said. “This is what we need to be about, loving each other, helping each other. Don’t look at me because I got Black skin. Look at me as a human being.”