The road to becoming the “grandmother of Juneteenth” took then-89-year-old Opal Lee from Fort Worth to Washington, DC, a 1,400-mile call on lawmakers to recognize a day she’d been honoring her entire life; her family de ella and Black Americans like them, for generations.
The trek was a series of 2.5-mile marches in recognition of the enslaved Black people in Galveston who didn’t know they were free until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Though 2022 marks the second year of her success — Juneteenth being celebrated as a federal holiday — Lee’s activism is far from over.
“Juneteenth is freedom, but we are not free until all of us are free,” said Lee, who was named last year’s “Texan of the Year” by The Dallas Morning News. “There’s still work to be done.”
Lee led the way through another 2.5-mile stretch Saturday — this time from Fort Worth’s Historic Southside into the city’s downtown — hundreds of people chanting her name as they followed closely behind.
“She’s 95, and she’s already outpacing us all,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke as he joined the crowd for “Opal Lee’s Walk for Freedom” in heat that neared 100 degrees.
“Nothing will stop Miss Opal from getting her message across,” Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said. “Ella She’s a teacher, an author, an activist, a pillar of the Fort Worth community, and now really an example to the entire world of what it looks like to have the tenacity and the refusal to ever give up, no matter what. ”
Sherry Williams, 51, said Lee’s determination is what brought her to the celebration from Arlington, her 9-year-old grandson, Kendrick, in tow.
“I wanted to show him that if she can do this at her age, he can do anything,” she said. “There are so many people debating the history of our people, and I want him to learn from those who made that history happen — because those are the people working to make sure we don’t repeat it.”
O’Rourke, joining Lee on stage in front of City Hall, seemed to agree.
“More than any person I know in the state of Texas,” he said, “Opal Lee is bringing the United States of America closer to its promise and its potential as it was first laid out 246 years ago.”
And most importantly, Williams added, “she’s taking her people with her.”
Dallas highlights culture, education
One of the dozens of additional celebrations to mark the holiday across North Texas was the Juneteenth Festival at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in South Dallas. For participants, it was a celebration of culture and an opportunity for education and advocacy.
A 3-kilometer walk around the center kicked the day off, to encourage health as part of the festival theme “Better Me Better You” and honor the tradition started by Lee.
“The walk is a walk of freedom but also of health and wellness,” said Pamela Jones, manager of the MLK Center.
Betty Carter Hooey said she and other participants walked for Lee and “all the people who have walked for justice and liberty.” She was a co-chairwoman of the event and is on the city’s MLK Advisory Board.
Carter Hooey grew up during segregation and said she grew up when Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year. She said she thought about her mother de ella, and her ancestors de ella brought to America through slavery whom she would never know, in that moment.
“I cried, I was exuberant,” she said. “I shouted for them.”
For Carter Hooey and others at the festival, Juneteenth is about celebrating Black culture and passing on tradition, but also about continuing the fight for racial equality. She encouraged Americans of every race and age to make positive change in their neighborhoods and to vote.
“The battle is not yet finished,” she said.
Nia Jackson, from the Dallas College multicultural affairs team, said as she walked that Juneteenth is about fostering a sense of belonging and gathering the community together.
A ceremony ran throughout the sunny morning at the main stage, surrounded by Pan-African flags. The crowd sang “Lift Every Voice,” and 10 year-old Jhayce Anderson performed a creative speech honoring Harriet Tubman.
Emma Rodgers, curator of the Dallas Civil Rights Museum, recalled the history of Juneteenth and the way it has been celebrated throughout Texan and American history.
“Wherever you go, take the holiday and remember Juneteenth,” she said.
People representing Black-owned businesses, job opportunities, and city entities such as the public library speckled the campus. Families enjoyed a bounce house and a children’s activities station.
Clinton Baker, a volunteer with the nonprofit group Hope Encourage Love Protect, one of the sponsors of the event, said Juneteenth is “a holiday we’ve been celebrating in Texas since the beginning of time. Now all races and creeds are starting to celebrate.”
Another volunteer, Makenzie Furlough, said she got involved with the event to give back to the community, support the MLK Center, and promote Black-owned businesses.
“It’s about embracing culture,” she said. “Our culture.”
‘Let’s keep marching’
In Fort Worth, Lee’s granddaughter Dione Sims said although Juneteenth wasn’t widely known across the state or country until recent years, the city has been cheering her grandmother on all along.
“I can’t wait to see the newscasts, to see the drones, that show how much Fort Worth loves the jewel that is my grandmother,” Sims said.
Fort Worth City Council member Chris Nettles said that a sense of community proves to him people can “come together on common ground,” something he wants to see more of in the future.
“Let’s keep marching, all the way to the polls,” he said. “Let’s come together again and again and vote for a change we can believe in, because until we regulate gun control, we are not free. Until we can stop saying her name de ella and his name de ella, we are not free.
Lee, who gathered 3 million signatures in support of Juneteenth to present to Congress, said she’s living proof it can be done.
“Can you just imagine 3 million people on the same page? We could turn this country around,” she said. “I know you know people who aren’t on the same page as you, and so you’re going to have to change their minds. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”
Moments later, a Juneteenth flag was raised in front of City Hall, quickly waving in the same rhythm as the Texas and American flags alongside it. Prominent across its middle is a curved arc: an ode to a new horizon, and the opportunities that lie ahead.