Meet Opal Lee, the 'grandmother of the movement' to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

Opal Lee walked from Texas to D.C. to bring attention to Juneteenth.

June 19, 2024, 4:01 AM

When President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, one woman captured well-deserved attention.

Opal Lee, now 97, was described by Biden as the "grandmother of the movement" to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

And Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president, also gave Lee her due in her remarks, saying, "And looking out across this room, I see the advocates, the activists, the leaders, who have been calling for this day for so long, including the one and only Ms. Opal Lee.

In 2016, at 89 years old, Lee, a former teacher and lifelong activist, walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to the nation's capital in an effort to get Juneteenth named a national holiday.

PHOTO: Vice President Kamala Harris watches as Opal Lee (2nd L), the activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, is given a pen after President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the White House, June 17, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris watches as Opal Lee (2nd L), the activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, is given a pen after President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, June 17, 2021.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Four years later, Lee's activism helped push Congress to establish a new national holiday for the first time in nearly 40 years. In 1983, lawmakers designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as the third Monday in January to memorialize the assassinated civil rights leader.

"I was overjoyed. I was ecstatic," Lee told ABC News in 2020" of her reaction to Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. "I was so happy I could have done a holy dance."

Juneteenth -- also known as Freedom Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day -- is celebrated on June 19 to mark the day in 1865 when African American slaves in Galveston, Texas, were among the last to be told they had been freed -- a full two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the Confederacy and two months after the Civil War officially ended.

President Joe Biden is applauded as he reaches for a pen to sign the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law as Vice President Kamala Harris stands by in the East Room of the White House June 17, 2021.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

To this day, Lee walks two-and-a-half miles each year on June 19 to mark the time between the Emancipation Proclamation and when the news of freedom arrived in Galveston.

This year, Lee marked the anniversary at the White House's first-ever Juneteenth celebration, a concert that featured Audra McDonald and Jennifer Hudson and remarks by Harris and Biden.

Vice President Kamala Harris welcomes Opal Lee to the stage during a Juneteenth concert on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, June 13, 2023. Opal Lee is considered the grandmother of Juneteenth.
Susan Walsh/AP

"Make yourself a committee of one to change somebody's mind," Lee told the audience gathered on the White House's South Lawn. "If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love."

Vice President Kamala Harris greets activist Opal Lee as they attend a Juneteenth concert at the White House in Washington, June 13, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A Texas native, Lee said she experienced racial unrest firsthand during her childhood, including a night, on June 19, 1939, when a group of hundreds of rioters set fire to her family's home.

"The people didn't want us. They started gathering. The paper said the police couldn't control the mob. My father came with a gun and police told them if he busted a cap they'd let the mob have us," Lee told ABC station KTRK-TV in Houston. "They started throwing things at the house and when they left, they took out the furniture and burned it and burned the house."

"People have said that perhaps this is the catalyst that got me onto Juneteenth, I don't know that," she said.

Opal Lee, 93, stands in front of the East Annie Street lot on June 2, 2021, where white rioters attacked, invaded and burned her family's home in 1939.
Amanda McCoy/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

Advocates like Lee say it offers a day to reflect on slavery's terrible stain on American history and for celebrations that look similar to those on the Fourth of July.

Juneteenth celebrations have become more mainstream in recent years, taking on added significance in 2020 when the country went through a racial reckoning after the killing of George Floyd.

Lee said she hopes the federal holiday will help educate people about what happened and "decide that this doesn’t have to happen again." She also hopes Juneteenth will become a day of national unity.

"Juneteenth is not a Black thing and it’s not a Texas thing," she told ABC News. "People all over, I don’t care what nationality, we all bleed red blood."

Editor's note: This report was originally published on June 18, 2021.

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