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Culture

Meet the Grandmother of Juneteenth

Retired teacher Opal Lee, 95, shares how she sparked the movement that turned a cherished tradition into our newest national holiday. Plus: free online event!

Have you ever had a gut feeling about something? I felt, positively, like I hadn’t done enough with my life. I’d finished college, gotten a master’s degree, taught school, worked as a social worker, had children. We had a farm. Our food bank served 500 families a day. I was volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. But even into my 80s, I had a nagging feeling that I should be doing more.

And I had always thought that Juneteenth was a day everybody ought to know about: the day in 1865 when the last of the people held in bondage in Texas learned they were free. So, in 2016, I began a march from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to Juneteenth.  I didn’t walk the whole way, but I did make it to Washington. In 2019, I started a petition, and we garnered 1.5 million signatures in favor of the holiday. People talked about it. And, of course, the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations for social justice that followed have helped draw attention to the cause. The fact that Juneteenth became a national holiday in my lifetime—I’m still on cloud nine. I could do a holy dance except they’d say I was twerking!

Older people don’t always remember this, but we have power. We have so much to teach the younger generations. I know some people are afraid. They don’t want to be bothered, or they draw into themselves. But the future depends on us.
Opal Lee
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Older people don’t always remember this, but we have power. We have so much to teach the younger generations. I know some people are afraid. They don’t want to be bothered, or they draw into themselves. But the future depends on us. We can’t be satisfied with just having Juneteenth made into law. We’ve got joblessness, homelessness, health care, climate change. If we don’t address these things, nobody’s going to. We have to educate, because the books don’t always tell the truth. I’ve seen pictures in textbooks of Black folks picking cotton, and they almost looked like they were enjoying themselves. I picked cotton, and ain’t nothing enjoyable about it. You have to stand up and say, “These things cannot happen anymore.”

Lately, you hear talk about our differences, but under our skin we are the same. We bleed red blood, all of us. Freedom isn’t something just for Black people to celebrate. It’s for everybody. I’d like to see our country celebrate freedom from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July. Now that would be a celebration! If each one of us could convince one person who’s not on the same page, we could do it. It’s not gonna happen in a day or a week. We have to work on it. Slowly. Persistently. That’s how change happens.

Don't Miss It!

A Conversation with Ms. Opal Lee, the Grandmother of Juneteenth

Monday, Jun 20, 2022
From 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Central Time

Free online webinar from AARP Texas. Register here.

This article has been adapted from AARP The Magazine. The definitive lifestyle publication available to AARP members only, it offers celebrity interviews, features on health and tech, plus tips, recipes, book and movie reviews and more. If you’re not yet an AARP member, join today to get your subscription to AARP The Magazine.

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