In case you didn’t know, grandmothers aren’t just for kids. And Juneteenth is no exception. Some people may not know Opal Lee, but she has been dubbed the grandmother of Juneteenth — and for good reason. For those who don’t know Opal Lee, she is a mother, sister, aunt, grandmother and friend to many. She is also a teacher, counselor and most notably to this day, at the age of 95, she continues to work as a civil rights activist which led to people coining her name as the Grandmother of Juneteenth.
Opal is the oldest of three children, born October 7, 1926, in Marshall, Texas. Her parents later bought a house in the Sycamore Park area in Fort Worth — a predominantly white neighborhood, which would later set the stage for a tragic event that she never forgot. At the age of 12, on June 19, 1939, a day that should have been for celebration of freedom, Opal witnessed a mob of over a hundred white supremacists, some of which where her neighbors, terrorize her family, chanting and demanding her family leave the neighborhood. In a fit of rage, the violent mob screamed racial slurs at the family before burning down her childhood home. This traumatizing event fell on a day that Opal celebrated as a day to commemorate when Texas abolished slavery, known to us as Juneteenth — also formally known as the Day of Jubilee. According to Opal, she was unsure if experiencing that hate crime was the catalyst that ignited the need for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday, but she never wavered or allowed that experience to deter her from celebrating Juneteenth on her own. She held onto her hopes that there will be freedom, not just freedom for Texans, or Black people, but freedom for everyone.
Later in life Opal worked as a teacher for fifteen years and a counselor for nine years before her retirement. After her retirement in 1977, Opal and civil rights activist Lenora Roll were funded by the city to research the early history of African Americans in Fort Worth. They realized there was a lack of African historical records and resources available in their area. This prompted them to found the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society. The two women wanted to spread awareness of African American history by celebrating that history, and providing resources for teaching others about the history. Opal and Lenora took Juneteenth celebrations from small local events that later grew into large festivals, some of which are still being held today.
At the age of 89, in hopes in getting more recognition in an effort to get Juneteenth named a national holiday, Opal Lee walked over 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. She traveled two and a half miles each day to symbolize the two and a half years that it took for Texans to officially abolish slavery. The journey lasted 4 months, from September 1, one month prior to Opal’s 90th birthday, to January 10, 2017. Her walks continued each year, and in multiple locations. Opal has shared the observation that we celebrated the 4th of July for so long, representing freedom, but we were not all free. To her it was important for Juneteenth to be observed because it is a day that all Americans were finally free.
Opal’s decades-long campaign for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday became reality in June 2021 when President Joe Biden, with Opal in attendance, signed the bill making Juneteenth the 11th federal holiday, which would be celebrated every June 19. Juneteenth is the first holiday in nearly 40 years to become a federal holiday, and Opal Lee was able to witness this great achievement firsthand. Hopefully, this holiday is the beginning of greater things and an opportunity in the years to come when there are more than just 18 states (currently) that will recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, at the state level.
Opal Lee is a true American hero. Her story and her achievement is a testament to how great America can be and what the human spirit can make possible. She has hopes, not only for Black Americans, but for all. Opal went through so much but never stopped. She continued to hope that there is acknowledgment of the past by not forgetting it but through celebration and growth. I’m saddened by thinking of the past, present — and what our future has in store if we don’t work collectively to improve race relations.
The history of Black Americans such as Opal can read like a sad tale, but her story, like many, is also one with triumphs. Opal’s family did nothing wrong; they aimed for the American dream by owning a home, only for her neighbors to not recognize or respect them as fellow Americans and try to burn that dream to ashes because of the color of their skin.
Opal’s story inspired me to reflect on the present. A story recently posted on BNN, about a Black teen that was harassed by a mob of white neighbors is a scary reminder that these horrific attacks that people like Opal endured are not in the past. The mentality that Black people don’t belong certain places in America still exists 83 years later. This is the kind of story I see too often. While images like this can be unsettling and disheartening, I have hope just like Opal did. If Opal can walk the walk, so can we — walk towards a brighter future.
Falisha McGee is Associate Editor of BNN. She is an activist and burgeoning journalist who is passionate about the progress of Black Americans. She is also an avid supporter of Black women’s health and well-being. Her column is posted every week.