For a fiesty 93-year-old Texan named Opal Lee, the coronavirus pandemic is just another obstacle on the long road to equality. She’s been traveling that road for more than nine decades, and those following in her footsteps will have her to thank if or when Juneteenth becomes a national holiday.
During the pandemic, Lee has been delivering food from her farm to families in need. But it’s what she’s been doing for years that’s gaining momentum: Trying to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Lee’s past experiences drove her to organize a walk from her home in Fort Worth to the nation’s capital, in the hopes of getting a million signatures on a Juneteenth petition.
“Slaves in Texas didn’t know they were free until General Granger made his way to Galveston with troops to tell slaves they were free — but this is two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation,” Lee said.
African Americans then and now have celebrated June 19 as their Independence Day. She explained why it’s so important to have a national holiday to the people who say slavery happened a long time ago.
“There’s still a form of slavery going on if people don’t have enough to eat — it’s a form of slavery,” she said. “And none of us are free until we’re all free.”
On Juneteenth more than 80 years ago, a life-changing event occurred for Lee. When she was 13 years old, she said, a white mob burned down her family’s home. She said that experience drives her to this day.
“I’m going to keep right on doing this until I know it’s a holiday,” she said. “And I feel it in my bones.”
And she said that this time, it just feels different.
By JERICKA DUNCAN