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Opal Lee: The Grandmother of Juneteenth And Her Unyielding Legacy

Opal Lee: The Grandmother of Juneteenth And Her Unyielding Legacy


Courtesy of Opal Lee

Opal Lee, affectionately known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” has become a pivotal figure in American history for her relentless advocacy to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Her journey from a young girl in segregated Texas to a national icon is inspiring and instructive, embodying the spirit of perseverance and the quest for justice.

Opal Lee was born on October 7, 1926, in Marshall, Texas, a town steeped in the rich, albeit troubled, history of the American South. Her early years were marked by the harsh realities of segregation and racial violence. Despite these challenges, Lee’s parents instilled in her the importance of education and resilience.

Lee’s pursuit of education led her to Wiley College, a Historically Black college (HBCU) in Marshall, Texas. Wiley College is renowned for its legacy of producing leaders and activists, most famously the Wiley College debate team that triumphed against more prominent institutions, a story immortalized in the film “The Great Debaters.” At Wiley, Lee cultivated her passion for social justice and community service, laying the foundation for her future endeavors.

After completing her education, Lee embarked on a career as an educator. She spent many years teaching elementary school, where she not only imparted academic knowledge but also taught her students the values of equality and self-worth. Her dedication to education extended beyond the classroom as she became involved in numerous community projects aimed at improving the lives of African Americans in Texas.


The Juneteenth Campaign

While Lee’s contributions to education were significant, it is her work with Juneteenth that has earned her national recognition. Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were finally informed of their freedom, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite its importance, Juneteenth was long overlooked in many parts of the United States.

In 2016, at the age of 89, Opal Lee began her most ambitious project yet: a campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. She embarked on a symbolic walk from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., covering over 1,400 miles in increments of 2.5 miles each day, representing the two and a half years it took for the news of freedom to reach Texas. Her walk captured the imagination of the nation and brought renewed attention to Juneteenth.

Lee’s tireless efforts paid off on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday. This historic moment was a testament to Lee’s unwavering dedication and the power of grassroots activism. President Biden acknowledged Lee’s pivotal role, stating that she was “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.”

A Resilient Life & Legacy

Opal Lee’s influence goes beyond her accomplishments. She has become a symbol of strength and advocacy, demonstrating that one person’s determination can lead to meaningful change. Lee’s story continues to inspire people across generations, emphasizing the significance of acknowledging and honoring our history.

Opal Lee’s path from a young girl in segregated Texas to the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” illustrates a compelling tale of persistence, education, and activism. Her education at Wiley College played a pivotal role in shaping her beliefs and purpose.

Through her lifelong commitment to equality and justice, particularly her efforts to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday, Lee has solidified her position in American history. Her legacy stands as a source of optimism and a call to action, urging all of us to work towards a more inclusive and fair society.

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