June 19, 1865 now, and will always, stand as one of the most important days for Black Americans; It is the day that Union soldiers enforced the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln’s order to end slavery—and freed all remaining slaves in Texas. Now recognized as Juneteenth, the celebration of this day is seen as an opportunity to honor our freedom and continuing strive toward equality.
Yes, among Black Americans, it is celebrated as an important day in American history. But unlike Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, or even President’s Day, Juneteenth is not nationally acknowledged as a holiday. In fact, you most likely won’t get a day off, holiday pay, or even see a store section full of Juneteenth decorations in every major city across the country. As it stands today, only 46 states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. 93 year old Texas-native, Ms.Opal Lee, has dedicated her time and energy to making sure it is recognized nationally.
Her efforts began just one month before her 90th birthday when she decided to walk from her home in Forth Worth, Texas, all the way to Washington D.C. as a way to draw attention to her cause. In the first year, Opal Lee walked in multiple cities of Texas before her team eventually decided that walking all the way to Washington D.C wasn’t the greatest decision at her age. So they updated their strategy so that Opal only walked where she was invited, and to her surprise, she was invited everywhere.
In an interview with Blavity, Lee says, “I was invited all over the place. I went to Shreveport and Texarkana; Fort Smith; Little Rock; St. Louis; Denver,Colorado; Chicago; Madison, Wisconsin; Philadelphia, girl if I tell you. I was all over the place and I was being invited by groups that had Juneteenth.”
They reached D.C. and did the final walk, on January 10, 2017, and solidified the movement as monumental progress toward increasing awareness and support of Juneteenth as a national holiday. Unfortunatly, June 19th is still not considered a national holiday, but Opal and her supporters have not given up hope. She firmly believes that there is still more we can do:
“All people need to do is talk to their senators. [A bill] is gonna get passed and my only hope is that it happens in my lifetime. I’ll be 93 in October and I’m counting on it happening pretty quickly.”
In true Opal Lee fashion, she has gone the extra mile for Juneteenth. She has created a children’s book, Juneteenth: a Children’s Story, and a short film, The Last To Know, to continue spreading the message.