Opal Lee was a little girl when she experienced her first Juneteenth in Marshall, Texas. She recalls going to the fairgrounds, enjoying music, food, speeches and ball games. “It was just like Christmas,” says Lee, now 95.
But around the age of 10, her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where she quickly discovered June backyard commemorations couldn’t match the excitement she became accustomed to in the small town she previously called home.
Historically, Juneteenth is the accounting of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in Southern states.
For Lee, who is now called the grandmother of Juneteenth, the holiday symbolizes freedom. Today, she supports celebrating from June 19 through July 4. She illuminates citizens were not free as of the later date and suggests today’s efforts are a movement to advocate for everyone. Lee credits the late Dr. Ronald “Doc” Myers, a Mississippi family practitioner and renowned civil rights activist, for launching the effort to make Juneteenth a national day of observance. Prior to his death in 2018, he was responsible for 42 of 50 states that elected to observe or make Juneteenth a state holiday.
However, it was Lee’s efforts to compile 1.5 million signatures along with celebrity partnerships, including Sean “Diddy” Combs, and her tenacity to walk for freedom that sealed the deal. For years, Lee laced up her tennis and walked over two and a half miles in cities across the nation, to observe the two and half years it took for enslaved Black Americans in Texas to receive the message they were free from bondage. On June 18, 2021, President Joe Biden, with Lee and granddaughter, Dione Sims on hand, proclaimed Juneteenth as the eleventh national day of observance.
Lee indicates there are too many disparities such as in education, where the right to share stories of history is not readily accepted, and prohibit the true sense of expression. She subscribes to the motto “12 Freedoms Gained”, which highlights nine decades between 1865 and 1945 when the last African slaves became Americans and finally obtained their freedom and later overcame Jim Crow laws. Lee is counting on youth to visualize what happened historically and ensure it will never happen again. “I don’t see why nobody else can’t see it but me, because it’s so obvious,” says Lee.
Local Profile interviewed Lee at her Fort Worth home a week before Juneteenth, and the rest of the conversation will be published in the September/October issue. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thank you so much for allowing Local Profile to come in and visit with you.
I’m having the best time of my life with you young people. Listen, you’re a young person if you’re not 95. You ain’t 95, you’re a young person.
But look at you, young in spirit all the way. You’re well known in Fort Worth and, of course, nationally, but with regard to our readers in Collin County, we really want them to know more. Could you describe what Juneteenth represents?
Freedom. I’m even advocating that we celebrate from the 19th of June to the 4th of July.
Why is that?
Because we weren’t free on the 4th of July. So let’s make this universal. We’re not talking about a Black thing or a Texas thing. We are talking about freedom for everybody. And we’re not free yet. We’ve got too many disparities — absolutely too many to say that we are free. I’m talking about education where they don’t want us to tell the truth — good, bad, ugly, indifferent. Let people know what actually happened. Let them make decisions.
I love it. For you, Juneteenth is, at its essence, freedom.
It is. Listen, freedom from the joblessness and the homelessness and health care that some of us can get and others can’t. We need freedom from these things, and it’s going to take all of us working together to get it done. I don’t see why nobody else can see it but me, because it’s so obvious.
Do you remember the first time you heard of Juneteenth?
Well, they called it Juneteenth then. I had to be six or seven years old. I was eight or nine when we came to Fort Worth. Nine or ten.
I was born in Marshall, Texas. And we’d go to the fairgrounds for Juneteenth. Ah, it was just like Christmas. There would be music and food. There’d be speeches and food. There’d be ball games and food and food and food. When we moved to Fort Worth? Not so. People celebrated with their friends in their backyards.
I met Lenora Rolla in her 90s. Tall, straight, didn’t wear glasses. And the city of Fort Worth had asked her to gather the materials written about what Blacks had contributed to Fort Worth. And she couldn’t find anything written. Absolutely nothing written. So, she started the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, and I was one of the people with her.
You were one of the founding members?
Yeah. And one of the programs was Juneteenth. And I remember Juneteenth in a tiny, little sycamore park. The park said there were 30,000 people in a three-day period — 10,000 people a day. Well, the park when it closed at ten o’clock, they just pulled the plug so the lights would go out and we would know to go home. Except this time, I got on a flatbed truck and put that thing back in and we danced and we partied until dawn. We did, we did.
The party didn’t stop?
Oh no. Then I met Dr. Ronald Myers. Dr. Myers was a minister, a medical doctor and a jazz musician all rolled into one. And Dr. Myers is responsible for forty-two or forty-three of the fifty states having some kind of Juneteenth observance. And guess what? You know how the doctors if they had government assistance while they were going to school —
They would have to go back and serve in their communities —
The place he chose in Mississippi to serve, they told him that it was too poor. But he stayed. Yes, he did. Doc raised a family in Mississippi.
On June 19, 1939, there was a mob of 500 or so white supremacists, and I know that this is potentially not great conversation, but —
Well, I’m used to it. That happened after we came to Fort Worth. My parents bought a house in a neighborhood where we weren’t wanted. And on the 19th of June, the papers said, 500 of them with the police who couldn’t control the mob, they said. My dad came with a gun, and the police said if he busted a cap, they’d let the mob have him. My parents sent us to friends who were several blocks away, and they left under the cover of darkness. People tore that place apart.
So you went down the street to stay with others?
Yeah, we had to bunk with somebody that night. Friends who took us in for a while. That took some doing because I have a brother who said we moved 17 times.
Was there anything that was recoverable or that was salvageable from the house?
I’m not even sure, because we as children weren’t able to go back. Our parents didn’t even discuss it with us. Whether they were able to salvage anything, I’m not sure. But never once did they mention it. They worked like Trojans and bought another house — just like nothing had occurred.
When did you feel Juneteenth needed to become a federal holiday?
Let me tell you what happened. I’m mulling it over. I’m 89 years old. I’ve had a family, I’ve been to college, I’ve taught school, I’ve done all of this. I just felt like there was something else that I should be doing, and I didn’t know what it was except I really think some of Dr. Myers rubbed off on me because Juneteenth just got to be an itch.
So I gathered people at my church, the pastor, musicians, the county commissioner and school board members, and they gave me the send-off. I walked 2 and a half miles from that church. And the next day, I got up and walked 2 and a half miles more.
The 2.5 miles represents the two and a half years the enslaved had to wait in Texas?
Yep. I walked through Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Dallas, Balch Springs, and the team said, ‘No, you won’t be doing it that way.’ And the reasoning was that someone had promised us an RV and that what I was doing was too political. So my team said, ‘You will only go where they have Juneteenth observances and you will only go where you are invited.’ So, I was invited all over these United States. Shreveport. Texarkana. Little Rock. I was invited to St. Louis and to Denver and to Colorado Springs. I was invited to Chicago. I was invited to Atlanta and to the Carolinas — all over the place.
So, if I left in September 2016, I actually got to Washington in January 2017. Now we had asked President Obama to walk with us from the Frederick Douglass house to The Capitol. He was in Chicago. I didn’t get what I wanted. I didn’t give up. Have you heard of this youngster P. Diddy? P. Diddy helped us get 1,500,000 signatures. And we took them to Congress. And we were prepared to take that many more.
Could you have ever imagined that kind of support? Or that kind of celebrity to walk with you on this journey?
No. And there were others.
And did they just reach out to you?
Diddy did. Some of the others wanted to join what we were doing, and we always told them, ‘Get us some signatures.’
People were so good to me. I didn’t have to worry about food or a place to stay. Or any of them.
So your body just kept going?
Yep. Like the Energizer Bunny.
For you, what was that whole experience like?
It was just something that had to be done. It’s like that Kipling poem, ‘If.” You just do it. You don’t think about it. I’ve had some really rough times, but hey, you have to keep going.
On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the bill that made Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday. How did you find out that this was going to happen?
Well, what happened was we took those signatures, and we got a call asking us to come to the White House. If we got a call on Thursday, we were there Friday. And then Juneteenth was right after that.
And we didn’t hesitate, I want you to know. If we had to walk, we would have made it. It was magnificent. It was wonderful. It was … I don’t know how to describe it. I have thought about it so many times, and I have pinched myself to be sure it actually happened. But it did.
You made the eleventh federal holiday. That’s pretty phenomenal. Can you really believe it?
You know, the accolades and all the pats on the back — I know all that’s gonna stop. But I’ll tell you what, I’m taking it all in.
To make sure, freedom marches on, you can join Ms. Lee on June 18 during her annual 2.5-mile Walk for Freedom. Register at juneteenthftw.com.