Dubbed “Grandmother of Juneteenth” she marched many miles to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Born in Marshall, Texas in 1926, Opal Lee and her family moved to Forth Worth, Texas at the age of 10. At the age of 12 years old in 1939, her parents bought a home in a majority white area on the 900 block of East Annie Street. On June 19th 1939 their home was vandalized and burned to the ground. When she recalled the incident, Lee states that fact that this ironically happened in June 19th, it encouraged her to help people understand that Juneteenth was not just a festival.

Lee retired from teaching in 1976 and became very active the in the Forth Worth community’s causes. She helped found Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society , and helped organize the city’s annual MLK Day celebration, Black History Month, and Juneteenth celebration. In the 1980s Lee organized a tradition where she would organize and bring together Forth Worth’s city leaders on a bus tour through the economically depressed areas of the city and point out the monumental landmarks important to the minority communities.

The campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday didn’t start this year, but Lee has been diligently working towards this for decades. Her choice of action, leading 2.5 mile walks annually. 2.5 is significant for the representation how many years it took for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. With the hopes of speaking to President Barack Obama to plead the case to make Juneteenth a Federal Holiday, in September 2016, at the age of 89, Opal Lee began her walk from Forth Worth, TX to Washington DC, arriving in January 2017. In addition to walking in Texas, Lee has led marches in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Atlanta, GA, and the Carolinas. After promoting a period of change.org, she also received 1.6 million signatures.

In June of 2021, at the age of 94, Opal Lee’s hard work paid off. Congress passed the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and President Joe Biden signed the bill into law. Opal Lee was honored by being invited to the bill signing ceremony, receiving a pen used by President Biden to sign the bill, a standing ovation, and a greeting one knee by the President.

Opal Lee | Photo via Cosmopolitan

Opal Lee | Photo via Variety Magazine

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