Opal Lee, second from right, of Fort Worth, Texas, who is traveling the country to gain support for making Juneteenth a national holiday, is shown in Cincinnati Friday with, from left, activist Iris Roley, host Kimya Moyo and Lydia Morgan, longtime organizer of the Juneteenth observance in Cincinnati. Photo by Dan Yount
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
Ahead of the fifth Democratic debate in Atlanta, 93-year-old Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas, honed her message of a Juneteenth national holiday and added more miles to her journey with a stop at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, on November 16.
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, with the announcement of the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.
It has been celebrated on Fathers Day weekend in Cincinnati in Eden Park for the last 33 years. Lydia and Noel Morgan and members of Juneteenth Cincinnati organize the event, which features music of all kinds, historical actors, children’s activities, food, vendors and a parade of flags of countries that slaves were taken from and to during the African Diaspora.
Mrs. Lee’s motto is “None of us are free until we are all free,” supports the mission of the museum, which works to provide visibility to the stories of those who “challenge inequities to pursue greater freedom for their brothers and sisters.”
The community was invited to walk with Ms. Lee starting at the Roebling Murals in Covington, Kentucky, walking over the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, and concluding at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Four months after relaunching her walking campaign from 2016, known as Opal’s Walk, she has walked in Detroit, Michigan; Williamsburg, Virginia; Rentiesville, Oklahoma; Galveston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Jersey City, New Jersey; Birmingham, Alabama; Mount Bayou, Mississippi; and Las Vegas, Nevada.
She plans to continue her trek across the country to tell about the unifying affect Juneteenth can have to heal the nation and wants the dwindling field of 2020 Presidential hopefuls to know she has her sights set on them.
She kicked off the change.org online petition — the second phase of her awareness campaign — last month with a goal to garner 100,000 signatures to show Congress and the administration the support for this across the country. Since turning 93, she acknowledges that time is of the essence and hopes that she will see legislation passed in both houses of Congress in 2020 that updates U.S. Code 36 that lists our national observances and holidays.
A board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF) since 1999, Mrs. Lee is giving it her all to ensure that the importance of Juneteenth as a unifying event is not forgotten. Anyone who wants to follow her journey can sign the petition or make a donation of support at www.opalswalk2dc.com, on Facebook @opalswalk2dc or Twitter and Instagram @opalsw2dc.
Mrs. Lee, a native of Marshall, Texas, has a master’s degree in counseling from North Texas State University and served as a home/school counselor in the Forth Worth Independent School District until she retired in 1977. She has three sons and a daughter. A third son died of Agent Orange exposure while serving with his two brothers in Vietnam. More than 50 of her family members have served in various wars.
She says her greatest passion has been hosting the Juneteenth Celebration in Fort Worth, which she has done for 40 years. She says it is a unifying event that brings people together, promotes educational programs, produces a Juneteenth stage play, and hosts a 5Krun and parade. Also, the event has a community service spinoff — operation of a massive, $1.3 million building in which a food bank feeding more than 500 people a day was established. The building is leased for a dollar a year.
Her walk began in 2016 at what is now Reedy Chapel AME Church in Galveston, where General Gordon Granger nailed President Lincoln’s Executive Order No. 3 to the door, declaring, “All Slaves are free.’’ She has walked about five miles a day at various times, splitting the distance into morning and afternoon walks. She added that it is not the walks, but hard work that has kept her active, healthy and alert.
Ms. Lee said she travels only to cities where she is invited to promote the petition drive, and the invitations are overwhelming. “There is a lot of diverse support for this,’’ she said.
While the observance is a state holiday in Texas, 46 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a ceremonial holiday, a day of observance, Mrs. Lee said. Ohio is not one of them.
According to Juneteenth.com, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19 that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — which had become official Jan. 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865 and the arrival of General Gordon Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former ‘masters’— attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination.
Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19 was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self improvement. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors enjoyed.
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most landowners allowed their workers the day off, and some even made donations of food and money.
Economic and cultural forces provided for a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants beginning in the early 1900s.
The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations.
On Jan. 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas due to the efforts of Al Edwards, a state legislator. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.
Today, Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country.
Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.