Meet the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’: Opal Lee

BLFF Team | Jun 19, 2022


On June 17th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making Juneteenth a federal holiday in America. Juneteenth is a celebration commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans in the United States and it is the first new federal holiday signed into law since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was adopted in 1983.

Juneteenth refers to June 19th, 1865, the anniversary of the announcement of General Order No. 3, which proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas, the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery. In commemoration of Juneteenth, celebrations include: singing traditional songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, family reunions and historical reenactments, readings of African-American writers, and more. After economic and political forces led to a decline in Juneteenth celebrations in the early 20th century, a resurgence of the holiday began during the 1960s and 1980s. This resurgence and recent designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is due largely to a woman known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth: Opal Lee.

Opal Lee was born in Marshall, Texas in 1926. She is a retired teacher, counselor and activist, most notable for curating the movement to make Juneteenth a federally-recognized holiday. After high school, Lee attended Wiley College, earning a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1952. Later on, Lee attended North Texas State University (now University of North Texas), where she earned her Master’s Degree in Counseling and Guidance. Upon receiving her Master’s, Lee returned to Fort Worth, Texas, where she taught for the local school district for 15 years and was a home school counselor for nine years until her retirement in 1977. In addition to her career in education, Lee was a member of multiple organizations including the Tarrant County Habitat for Humanity Board, Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, and Fort Worth-Tarrant County Community Action Agency (CAA) Board. Currently, Lee serves on the Board of her non-profit Unity Unlimited, Inc. founded in 1994.

For decades, Lee campaigned for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. Part of Lee’s activism included the promotion of 2.5 mile walks in honor of Juneteenth, representing the two and a half years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Galveston, Texas. At the age of 89, Lee walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. in an effort to spread awareness about the new federally recognized holiday. Hoping to be speak with former President Barack Obama about signing a bill into law making Juneteenth a federal holiday, Lee promoted a petition on, receiving 1.6 million signatures. (Although she did not ultimately speak with President Obama then, the two have since met.) After decades of advocacy, in June 2021 Lee was present as President Biden signed the bill into law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. At the bill signing ceremony Lee sat in the front row and was greeted with a standing ovation, with President Joe Biden kneeling out of respect as he welcomed her into the White House. Lee was later named the 2021 “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News for her activism.




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