‘People have worked so hard.’ Woman who helped make Juneteenth a national holiday visits New Jersey

Dr. Opal Lee, 97, was instrumental in getting Juneteenth declared a national holiday in 2021.

Naomi Yané

Jun 19, 2024, 9:28 AM

Updated 29 days ago

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It’s been three years since Juneteenth became a federal holiday. It commemorates the day enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas learned about their freedom. Ahead of the celebration, News 12 spoke to the woman known as the grandmother of Juneteenth as she visited New Jersey.
"I want people to be aware of what Juneteenth is all about. It means freedom and I don’t mean freedom for Black people or freedom for people in Texas, but freedom for everybody,” says Dr. Opal Lee.
The 97-year-old is affectionately known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. She was in New Jersey ahead of the holiday for a fireside chat about her activism. Dr. Lee was instrumental in getting the holiday federally recognized and she’s over the moon to have seen it happen in her lifetime.
"I was delighted. So many people have worked so hard for so long to make it a holiday,” Lee says.
Dr. Lee’s fight for a Juneteenth holiday spans decades but started with her time in the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society alongside civil rights activist Lenora Rolla. They organized some of the first Juneteenth celebrations in Texas.
"I remember when we had Juneteenth in a tiny little sycamore park…30,000 people in a three-day period,” she says.
But Dr. Lee’s dream went beyond her home state. She began holding 2 ½ -mile walks yearly to bring awareness symbolic of the 2 ½ years it took for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to hit Texas. She led a walk in 2016 that spanned four months and took her message much further.
"I wanted it to be a national holiday. I thought if I walked the 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington D.C., I’d get to talk to the president and I’d get it done,” says Lee.
She didn’t get to talk to then-President Barack Obama. But she did get it done. She started a petition on Change.org and got 1.6 million signatures. In June 2021, her years of work paid off. A bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden.
"When we got the call to go to the White House… the president and the vice president, oh I was a happy camper… I could have done a holy dance,” says Lee.
When asked how she likes being known as the grandmother of Juneteenth she says, "I love it and you need to know they gave me that title because I decided that if I walk from Fort Worth to Washington D.C., 1.400 miles, somebody would take notice."


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