The Incredible History of Juneteenth and Miss Opal Lee

The Incredible History of Juneteenth and Miss Opal Lee

Here at Junes, we are loudly and proudly pro-women. It’s woven into the very foundation of our company, and we talk about it all the time. Perhaps what we don’t discuss as much is that while we tend to focus our efforts on women over the border in Ciudad Juarez, in reality, we mean ALL women everywhere. While our gender faces an uphill battle in true equality, some groups, like women facing violence in Mexico, bear an unfair burden. In our own country, that burden is largely shouldered by women of color. 

If you didn’t consider that before, you likely consider it now. As a nation, it seems we’ve reached a boiling point with both the exposure of racial inequalities and the demand to right the wrong. The current movement has brought to light the many ramifications of systemic racism rooted all the way back to our slave-owning past and the need to reconcile it once and for all. Perhaps this is why the upcoming holiday celebrating freedom is so important.

Oh, did you think we were talking about the Fourth of July? Well, we’re not. While the Fourth commemorates gaining our independence as a nation in 1776, the reality is that it wouldn’t mean freedom for everyone for another 89 years – almost an entire century later. For that, we celebrate Juneteenth – to honor the day the last slaves in America were informed of their freedom.

If you are assuming that occurred when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, you would again be wrong. (Not trying to shame anyone here, btw – just educate!) It would be another 2 ½ years before Union General Gordon Granger would travel to Galveston, Texas to inform the state’s enslaved African-Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were, in fact, free. For that reason, we can remember June 19th, 1865 as the day that all Americans were truly free – an idea that has thankfully gained much traction in our present climate, despite the holiday remaining relatively unknown to a large part of the country until just last year. A petition to adopt Juneteenth as a national holiday went from 80,000 signatures at the end of May, 2020 to 1.5 million delivered to Congress in the fall. Just a few days ago, a bill making it so was signed into law.

That’s right, for the past 155 years Juneteenth was not recognized as a Federal holiday. In fact, it wasn’t even recognized as an official state holiday until 1980 when Texas became the first to designate it as such. Most states have since followed suit, (three are holding out – we’re looking at you Hawaii and the Dakotas), and in more recent times, individual companies and corporations stepped up and declared it one for themselves. The pressure worked, and for the first time in 2021, we’ll be celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday. We wanted to take the opportunity to honor an incredible woman and fellow Texan who has been leading the charge in this effort.

We’re talking about Miss Opal Lee – a Marshall, TX born, Fort Worth raised educator, activist, and proud instigator – 94 years young today. Those who know her work think of her as “the Grandmother of Juneteenth,” while she thinks of herself as “just a little old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody’s business.” Her words, not ours. If you already love her from that statement alone, you’re in good company, but here’s a little more about Miss Opal, her efforts, and her legacy.

At the age of 12, Opal Lee, along with her family, were the victims of a terrible hate crime. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood, an angry mob of over 500 supremacists gathered and destroyed her home – vandalizing and burning it to the ground. This experience pushed her into a life dedicated to activism and humanitarianism – in her vast body of work, she has focused efforts on affordable housing, AIDS outreach, volunteering for the betterment of her neighborhood in Tarrant County, and even urban farming to address food access, while providing jobs, training, and education. And that’s just to name a few big ones. Perhaps the biggest effort of all, however, has been her passion to realize Juneteenth as a national holiday. She’s the author of the aforementioned petition, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

In 2016, at the age of 89, Miss Opal walked all the way from her home in Fort Worth to the steps of the capitol to draw support for Juneteenth. Covering 2 ½ miles per day to honor the 2 ½ years it took for slaves in Texas to learn they were free, it’s a tradition she still upholds today. Miss Opal will once again embark on her journey this Juneteenth, and you can join her wherever you are in solidarity and further support her ongoing mission if you please through While recognizing the holiday nationally is a great and necessary effort, there is still much work to be done in the areas of unity, social justice, and racial equality - her foundation’s larger focus.

Opal Lee is just one of the many women of color who is stepping up and leading the charge to make this country a more equal and therefore inherently better place. (Just look at what the ladies did in Georgia last year.) May we all follow their lead and rise up to not only realize, but work to correct the structural inequalities that persist as a direct result of our past. And may we see that while the final, official abolition of slavery may feel like a Texas problem, it’s bigger than even the state of “big-ness.” As Miss Opal has been known to say, “none of us are free ‘till we’re all free.” 

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