It took two and a half years, after the Emancipation Proclamation, for Black folks in Texas to learn about their freedom. When General Gordon Granger delivered Texans the liberating message on June 19, 1865, the date became a historical marker. Now, known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day, Americans won't find it on any national calendar. Though many have worked to change this careless omission, nobody stands out more than 92-year-old community leader and Texan Ms. Opal Lee.
Lee was 89 years old when she started her mission to walk from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. Her objective was simply to get June 19, recognized as a national holiday. It didn't take long for the news about her walk to spread all over the country making her name synonymous with the fight to nationalize Juneteenth.
"It's not a Black thing. It's not a white thing. It's just the right thing," Lee told Blavity, in a video interview.
Trekking for two and a half miles every day— a mile for each year Black Texans remained enslaved after the abolition of slavery— Lee set out. Both Lee and her granddaughter Dione Sims, executive director of the nonprofit Unity Unlimited, which sponsors the Fort Worth Juneteenth celebration, sat with Blavity. We discussed the symbolic walk, importance of Juneteenth and how others can join the mission to make Juneteenth national.
First things first, Ms. Opal Lee wants to make sure the reports are accurate. Juneteenth is in her DNA and she prides herself on keeping the legacy of the holiday alive. About a month before her 90th birthday, September 1, 2016 to be exact, she began the walk.
"I decided that surely there was something I could do to bring attention to the fact that we needed Juneteenth as a national holiday," Lee said. "So I decided, if a little old lady in tennis shoes was walking toward Washington, D.C., somebody would take notice."
Indeed, Lee made local and national headlines. She even caught the attention of a company, who offered to provide an RV vehicle to help her walk towards the capital. Then the 2016 U.S. presidential elections got heated and suddenly Lee's walk became too political for her sponsor. The company backed out, much to Lee's disappointment.
"I would have thought it would have stopped her, but of course it didn't," Lee's granddaughter said.
Sims explained how each day they would take Lee to her walking spot, she'd walk her miles then come home. From Fort Worth to Arlington and most of the way through Dallas, she clocked in her 1400 miles towards D.C. After Dallas, the team updated their strategy and decided to only walk in states where Lee was invited. Lee's team informed the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF) directors about the change in plans and the invitations poured in.
"I was invited all over the place," Lee shared. " I went to Shreveport and Texarkana; Fort Smith; Little Rock; St. Louis; Denver,Colorado; Chicago; Madison, Wisconsin; Philadelphia, girl if I tell you. I was all over the place and I was being invited by groups that had Juneteenth."
They reached D.C. and did the final walk, on January 10, 2017. A press conference culminated the experience and monumental walk that put Juneteenth back on the nation's radar.
Juneteenth: Past, Present And Future
While the walk caught the public's attention, almost three years ago, Lee and the Fort Worth Juneteenth committee still have not gotten what they need—Juneteenth on the national calendar. Lee recalls a time when Juneteenth celebrations in Fort Worth could draw in a crowd of 30,000 people. Sims confirmed the number through her research at the Fort Worth Library's recorded archives.
"I have had a chance to see all the energy that they put in making sure it [Juneteenth celebrations] happened, back in the 70s." Sims said."That was kind of the rejuvenation of Juneteenth, here in Fort Worth," she added.
Fort Worth has always celebrated Juneteenth, in some fashion. Lee and Sims recall the festivals maturity from Fredrick Douglas Park (which no longer exists) in the 1900s to Sycamore Park and finally its current location at the Tarrant County College south campus. In addition to a grand parade, pageants and cook offs, the festivities include a basketball tournament, cheerleading competition, 5K walk run, concerts, art contest, health fair, educational workshops, a stage play written by former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis and more. Despite the growth, Lee's focus remains on the national calendar and she hopes to see that dream come true soon.
"All people need to do is talk to their senators," Lee said.
In fact, a Juneteenth bill made it to the U.S. Senate, once before. NJOF founder Dr. Ronald Myers, who sadly passed away in 2018, helped former republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson draft and introduce the Juneteenth Independence Day bill, in 2012. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass the judiciary committee, but that doesn't mean it can't be reintroduced.
"We have to take up where they left off," Lee urged. "It's gonna get passed and my only hope is that it happens in my lifetime. I'll be 93 in October and I'm counting on it happening pretty quickly."
As Ms. Opal Lee and Dione Sims mentioned throughout the interview, Juneteenth is a unifier. Enslaved Black folks did not free themselves. Black liberation took a community that extended to abolitionists of all backgrounds and Juneteenth symbolizes the result of that unification. Juneteenth could be as big as the fourth of July. Imagine waves of people flocking to various cities inTexas every June, the same way patrons travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Currently, 45 states recognize and celebrate Juneteenth as state holidays; there's no reason for the entire nation not to join in. With a simple call to our senators we can make it happen.
In the meantime, Lee has written a children's book called Juneteenth a Children's Story, which will be available later, in 2019; and created a documentary titled The Last to Know to further the message about the holiday. She continues to lead Fort Worth's Juneteenth celebrations with Sims and Unity Unlimited. As celebration costs climb to over $75,000, Lee invites others in the community to pitch in and help Fort Worth keep the commemoration going for years to come.
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"Just know, people are doing Juneteenth all over this place and I''m so happy you'd think it was my birthday, right now because I'm having a good time," Lee closed.