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16 Jun 2023

“Freedom is for everybody…”

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June 16, 2023 Category: Local Posted by:

While Juneteenth may have originated in Texas, for Opal Lee, the woman who spearheaded the movement to make it a national holiday, it’s an opportunity to educate the young.

ABOVE PHOTO: Vice President Kamala Harris welcomes Opal Lee to the stage during a Juneteenth concert on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Opal Lee is considered the grandmother of Juneteenth. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 

By Denise Clay-Murray

For much of her life, Opal Lee has been an educator.

Before she was given the pen that President Joe Biden used to sign the legislation designating Juneteenth as a national holiday in 2021, Lee was a teacher in Fort Worth, Texas. Following her retirement, she did community service for a variety of groups including Habitat for Humanity, and Citizens Concerned for Human Dignity, which helps economically disadvantaged people in Fort Worth find housing.

But what Lee will be best remembered for, and what brought her to the apron of Philadelphia City Hall on June 5, are her efforts to get June 19, or Juneteenth, celebrated as a national holiday. The holiday, which has been observed in Texas for more than 150 years, commemorates the day in 1865 — June 19 — that enslaved people in Texas learned that the Civil War had ended and that they were emancipated.

From a walk to Washington, D.C. six years ago to bring awareness to the holiday, to a children’s book that makes Juneteenth, and everything about it, understandable for youngsters, Lee has made it her mission to help Americans understand that this celebration of emancipation is about emancipation for everyone.

Following a reception honoring Lee at the Live! Hotel and Casino in South Philadelphia, the SUN spoke to her about the history of the holiday, why a national celebration is important, and what Philadelphia gets right about the holiday.

SUN: It is an honor to meet you, Ms. Lee and thank you for giving me some of your time. I guess my first question for you is, what was your first memory of Juneteenth? How did you learn about it?

OL: I was born in Marshall, Texas, and we would go to the fairgrounds for Juneteenth. There would be ball games, speeches, music, and food. When we moved to Fort Worth, it wasn’t celebrated so much. People celebrated with their friends by having a picnic or something like that. So, I met with Lenora Rolla. The City of Fort Worth had asked her to record the contributions that Blacks had made to the growth of Fort Worth, and she couldn’t find anything. So, she started the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society. I was one of its members and one of its programs was Juneteenth. 

SUN: How did the movement to get Juneteenth declared a national holiday get started?

OL: I had met Dr. Meyers —  Ronald Meyers. He was a medical doctor, a minister and a jazz musician all rolled into one. Dr. Meyers was adamant about Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. In fact, he’s responsible for at least 42 of the 50 states having some sort of celebration. I guess Doc is looking down now and saying it’s about time you got it done, you know.

SUN: When President Biden signed the legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday into law, you were at the White House. We’ve been celebrating it for two years now. What has made you happy about how we’ve commemorated it, and what concerns do you have?

OL: I’m happy that it’s on the calendar. But I’m concerned that the children aren’t being taught about it in school. That’s important because if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it and we don’t need to repeat that history. 

SUN: You decided to come to Philadelphia for the national Juneteenth flag raising. What about Philadelphia makes this such a special place for this holiday?

OL: I’ve been here before. People in Philadelphia seem to actually celebrate the holiday. 

SUN: What would you like young people to know about the holiday?

OL: I believe that the young people are the ones to get us out of the quagmire of homelessness, lack of opportunity, and climate change that we’re in. I’d encourage them to make a community. There may be people who aren’t on the same page with you, but you can change their minds. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. It’s our responsibility to do.

SUN: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Lee. Again, it was really an honor.

OL: Thank you.

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