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Opal Lee, 94, was a driving force behind Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday

The 94-year-old activist known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth” has pushed for years for June 19 to become a national holiday. Now her dream has become a reality.
/ Source: TODAY

Opal Lee’s dream has become reality.

The 94-year-old activist known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth” has pushed for years for June 19 to become a national holiday, which included walking 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., at 90 years old in 2016 to bring awareness of America’s other independence day.

Opal Lee
Texas activist Opal Lee, 94, pushed for years to have Juneteenth become a national holiday, pushing for a bill that will now make it a federal holiday. Paul Moseley / Fort Worth Star-Telegram, TNS via Getty Images

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a bill that makes Juneteenth a federal holiday after it was passed unanimously by the Senate on Tuesday and by a vote of 415-14 in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. Lee was present for the historical moment.

"Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a brighter morning to come," Biden said during a signing ceremony at the White House. "This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power. A day in which we remember the moral stain, terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take."

Lee shook hands with President Biden and tweeted about seeing her lifelong mission come to life.

“I’m telling you, I’ll probably do a holy dance,” Lee told TODAY ahead of Biden's signing. “I just don’t know how to describe it. I just feel like it’s the beginning of something great, and I want to be a part of it.”

The holiday marks the end of slavery in the U.S. when Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to announce the freedom of the last American slaves, 2 ½ years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War. The 13th Amendment then officially abolished slavery after being ratified in December of 1865.

The current legislation makes Juneteenth a paid holiday for federal employees, although private businesses will still have discretion as to whether they will give employees the day off.

Lee has become a prominent face of the movement to recognize the holiday since translating her love of the Juneteenth celebrations as a child in Texas and turning it into action.

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who was one of the original sponsors of the legislation, thanked Lee for her efforts after the bill was passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

"This has been a long journey with the work of our fellow Texans, the late Representative Al Edwards and Opal Lee," she tweeted.

Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980. The day has now been recognized in 47 states and the District of Columbia as a holiday or observance, but the legislation approved by the House and Senate cements it as a national holiday.

The energetic great-grandmother envisions a Mardi Gras-style celebration that lasts from June 19 until the nation’s Independence Day on July 4 every year.

“The festival is a draw,” she said. “Get people there and then educate ‘em. I want all the different components that bring people up to date and then show how we have been able to work together. I want them to know what transpired, what’s transpiring and I want them to know what can happen.”

Lee’s Juneteenth celebration has already begun; she brought her walking campaign to Galveston on Memorial Day last month for a 2 ½-mile walk. Joined by a crowd as she passed historic landmarks, the walk symbolizes the 2 ½ years between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the arrival of the federal troops in Galveston signalling the end of slavery.

She also collected 1.5 million signatures in her push to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

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“I think 50% more (know about the holiday than last year), and I wanted it to be 100%, so I’m gonna keep on walking and talking about it,” Lee said.

Juneteenth was a mixture of sorrow and joy for Lee when she was growing up in Marshall, Texas, in the 1920s and ‘30s.

When she was 12, a white mob burned and looted her family’s home on June 19, 1939, while police officers stood and watched without trying to stop it. However, the day also became a cherished family celebration for many years.

The history of Juneteenth

June 19, 202002:56

“In that day and time, that festival was like Christmas,” she said. “All the games and the music and the food and the people that you get to see that you didn’t see all the time. And people together. I tell you, festivals have evolved, and I’m glad of it because there’s so much that needs to be done.”

The retired schoolteacher took that family history and passion for the holiday and turned it into a national crusade in 2016 when she walked from her hometown in Fort Worth, Texas, to the nation’s capital, gathering signatures to lobby Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

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

“There was so many people that didn’t know a thing in the world about Juneteenth,” she said about her 2016 walk. “Blacks, whites, whatever. They just weren’t aware. Now some 48 states have some kind of Juneteenth celebration. It’s encouraging to know that people are becoming aware, that they’re beginning to understand and perhaps do something about the division that surrounds us.”

The nationwide protests against racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd last year also brought an increased spotlight to Juneteenth. Lee believes the racial reckoning brought on by Floyd’s death is a chance to make change.

“I really believe that it’s like a storm that you go through,” she said. “And then you come out on the other side, and you have to clear away the debris. You have to make adjustments, you have to do new things, and this is what this is all about.”

While Juneteenth has become a proud celebration of Black culture, Lee also wants to use her campaign to highlight the importance of combating issues like homelessness, joblessness, health care and climate change that have greatly affected communities of color.

“Freedom is freedom whenever you get it,” she said. “And right now I feel like we’re not free. We have too many disparities that need to be addressed, and we don’t need to be divided doing it.”

Opal Lee
Opal Lee, shown on Aug. 30, 2016, plans to walk to Washington D.C. in an effort to gather enough signatures to convince Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday.Rodger Mallison / Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

Lee also hopes to inspire the next generation of civil rights activists.

“I’d tell them that they have a tremendous job to do,” she said. “That there is the education, the technology that’s available to them that we didn’t have, to use it wisely. I tell them that they should be a committee of one. And when I say a committee of one, to change somebody who they know who is not on the same page that they are on.

“I would tell them that each one needs to teach one. It has to be done. We’ve got to change minds. And the young people have the talent to do it.”

She is working against the forces of those who push back against celebrating Juneteenth because it brings up a dark time in our nation’s history. Republican legislatures in more than a dozen states have worked to pass legislation in recent weeks around how slavery and its effects are taught in schools.

“If we don’t understand the past, we’re bound to repeat it,” Lee said. “And so we must work at having people understand. Nobody is blaming folk. The blame game is not part of what we need to do. We simply need to learn from what happened so it doesn’t happen again. I could repeat that over and over again.”

"Some might ask, 'Why dwell on the past? Let us forget unpleasant things and move on into the future,'" Rep. Jackson Lee said in a statement about the legislation passing. "My answer is to quote the great southern writer William Faulkner: 'The past is never dead. It is not even the past.'''

Lee is eagerly anticipating this year’s Juneteenth celebration, when she will once again walk 2 ½ miles from Historic Southside to downtown Fort Worth on Saturday. She will do it with the knowledge that her tireless work has helped result in Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday.

“I think it’s gonna be powerful,” she said. “I’m ecstatic. I always said that I was gonna keep walking and keep talking until it happens.”