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Opal Lee- Grandmother of Juneteenth

by Leyla Abdallah, contributor

Often referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Opal Lee played a crucial role in advocating for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday.

Her activism journey was influenced by her personal experiences and historical awareness, which were shaped by her surroundings and the cultural context in which she grew up. Opal Lee was born in Marshall, Texas, in 1927. There, at the age of 12, she witnessed firsthand segregation and constant discrimination during her youth in that period of America’s social norm. 

Her understanding of the systemic challenges faced by African Americans was based on firsthand experiences. She was experiencing what she did not want others to witness; rather, she wanted to raise awareness of the constant dismay she and others experienced. 

Opals addresses crowd of 2000 at 2024 march. (photo credit, Dallas Morning News, June 19, 2024)

Moments that Opal Lee witnessed that changed her life were a mob attack on a man of color who was accused of assaulting a white woman and the lynching of a Black teenage girl.

These violent attacks, and murders were traumatizing for young Opal Lee. Being so young and witnessing such a horrible tragedy is heartbreaking, but it was also eye-opening to Opal. It also exposed her to the extent of the inhumane treatment Blacks were undergoing. Her home was set on fire home was set on fire by white rioters on Juneteenth in 1939 when her family tried to celebrate the occasion and her father was warned by the police to not fight back or defend their land. It extended her determination to fight for her and others’  rights and equalities. Lee’s experiences and visual trauma during this period shaped her schema in many ways.

Juneteenth as a federal holiday was driven by a commitment to preserving African American history and culture, ensuring the education that future generations would understand the struggles and triumphs of their ancestors. 

Many see Opal as a symbol of justice

Many see Opal as a symbol of justice. She endured many obstacles during her journey of fighting for the holiday. Many people also misinterpreted her message for peace and perceived her to others as a threat. She faced semantic attacks and must constantly be alert to defend herself. 

Although she continues to be very outspoken, she has to take constant measures of care while expressing her work. However, she perseveres and, uses her platform to educate and advocate for civil and human rights through legislative action. Opal was , and still is, very determined to spread the message of Juneteenth.

For many years, she organized walks to Washington, D.C., and gathered signatures for petitions to achieve the goal. These actions, although small, had a significant impact on getting the word out. 
Of course, many were against it, but even more were in support. 

Juneteenth holds a special significance to those who endured the horrid treatment of Black people in America as well as families sand generations of those who are not here to celebrate it with us today. 

We must recognize those who have fallen and what they stood for. Juneteenth is the holiday that we must acknolwdge and honor as we strive to be voices for our ancestors.

With this federal holiday, we educate our future generations. With the flag’s symbolism, each color represents a story of the events taken. 

Erykah Badu, speaker at 2024 Juneteenth celebration in Dallas. (photo credit-AP)..

She was honored by Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden for for contributions to humanity. Celebrities support her movement include, Vice President Kamala Harris, Eryka Badu, Usher, Pharrell Williams, and 

Now, the acknowledgment of this Black history event is an official history account that will evolve over generations.

From speeches, to walks to protests to being announced yearly by the government officials, Opal was a driving force behind it all.

The holiday highlights Opal Lee, who was 89 years old when she took action to create it. This year, 2024, she celebrates 97 years of life

Because of her efforts, Juneteenth will be honored by all as a historical holiday.

Ms. Opal stays hydrated durig the march in excessively hot weather.

 

 

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16 Comments

  1. Amera N Salem says:

    “Hey Leyla, you wrote a fantastic piece about Opal Lee. I appreciated how you brought up her strolls to Washington, D.C. to obtain signatures on petitions. It demonstrates her steadfast dedication and the power of tiny deeds to create enormous effects. In addition to inspiring readers with Lee’s tenacity in fighting for justice, your post explains the significance of Juneteenth. I appreciate you sharing this tale.”

  2. Lia Garvey says:

    The article on Opal Lee is a tribute, skillfully highlighting her relentless campaign to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. Leyla’s vivid detail emphasize Lee’s profound impact and the broader historical significance of Juneteenth. One notable fact is that Lee, at the age of 89, walked from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to promote her cause. This piece is crucial for educating readers on the importance of commemorating African American history and the power of dedicated activism.

  3. Jedaya George says:

    Your article is well written and really showcases some of what Opal Lee’s motivation for her cause. Opal Lee is an inspiration to African- American rights movements. She is strong and given her background with first hand experiences with injustice, she is a force. Her story, I find, is inspiring.

  4. Malika Maynard says:

    Opal Lee’s dedication to making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a testament to her courage and commitment to justice. Her advocacy, fueled by personal experiences and a passion for equality, has left a lasting impact on American history and cultural awareness. Her story inspires us to honor our past and strive for a more just future.

  5. Leonela Mendez says:

    Opal’s tireless efforts to fight for the recognition of Juneteenth have indeed made her a powerful symbol of justice for many. As mentioned, she faced significant obstacles and attacks along the way, yet she persevered with determination to spread the message and advocate for this important commemoration of Black history and liberation.

    Despite being perceived as a threat by some, Opal used her platform to educate and fight for civil and human rights through legislative action. Her organizing of walks to Washington D.C. and petition drives, although seemingly small actions, played a crucial role in raising awareness and building momentum for the Juneteenth cause.

    Opal’s resilience and refusal to be silenced, even in the face of semantic attacks and the need to constantly defend herself, solidifies her status as a symbol of justice. She represents the ongoing struggle for racial equity and the power of grassroots activism to enact meaningful change.

    1. Amera N Salem says:

      “Hey Leyla, you wrote a fantastic piece about Opal Lee. I appreciated how you brought up her strolls to Washington, D.C. to obtain signatures on petitions. It demonstrates her steadfast dedication and the power of tiny deeds to create enormous effects. In addition to inspiring readers with Lee’s tenacity in fighting for justice, your post explains the significance of Juneteenth. I appreciate you sharing this tale.”

  6. Carly Krupa says:

    This piece on Juneteenth and Opal Lee’s significant contributions to the Black rights movement fills me with admiration and inspiration. The history of Opal Lee, a tenacious advocate whose vision and passion helped elevate Juneteenth to federal holiday status, exemplifies the strength of tenacity and the significance of individual action on the larger search for justice. Thank you for sharing your voice in celebration of Opal Lee’s legacy and the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. I hope everyone can also embrace the broader message of hope and solidarity that your article represents. It is a call to honor our past, acknowledge the progress made, and commit ourselves to the ongoing journey toward a more just and inclusive world.

  7. Simone Solomon says:

    Your article showed Opal Lee just as she is, which is a fighter. It showed how she fought even when nobody was brave enough to. From your article, everyone can learn a little more. You included how her past shaped her future. Opal wouldn’t give up until she saw her dream come true. Your article was well detailed and showed Opal in the glory she deserves. Not many can go through what she went and come back stronger than ever.

    1. Jedaya George says:

      Your article is well written and really showcases some of what Opal Lee’s motivation for her cause. Opal Lee is an inspiration to African- American rights movements. She is strong and given her background with first hand experiences with injustice, she is a force. Her story, I find, is inspiring.

  8. Gabrielle Quetel says:

    Hi Leyla, I liked how you focused on Opal Lee and told her story. As you said in the article, she is the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”. The role that she plays is very important and her story is very powerful. I think that you were able to truly encompass the impact that Opal Lee has made for Juneteenth as well as her importance and significance for the Black community. Her determination that led to Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday is inspiring.

  9. Kristle Casey says:

    This article did a great job painting a complete picture of how Opal Lee’s life and personal psychology are intertwined with her passion for civil rights. Most issues in civil rights involves some sort of widespread trauma. Those horrific occurrences Lee experienced as a child were shared by others within her community and the African diaspora in the United States. After experiencing trauma, some people become stuck in a depressive cycle of their thoughts, emotions, and damaging behavior. However, Opal Lee’s trauma galvanized her to serve as an advocate and educator of her culture.

  10. Brianna Matthew says:

    This article provided significant information about the activist Opal Lee, whose tremendous efforts led Juneteenth to become an official holiday. Her story is very inspiring, as it shows someone who experienced such racial trauma used it to fight for racial inequality and bring awareness about Juneteenth.

  11. Treneece Williams says:

    It is admirable to me that Opal, instead of cowering from the events of her childhood, stood taller and dedicated her entire life to Juneteenth and the historical awareness around it. Watching black people get hanged and killed, and watching your family home burn down; it must have been hard for young Opal to watch. I admire her strength.

  12. Makayla Smith says:

    This was a great article that included important details such as Opal Lee’s activism being deeply rooted in her traumatic experiences and the harsh realities of segregation she faced growing up. You also included her witnessing violent attacks and the burning of her home which only fueled her determination to fight for justice and equality. Overall, her unwavering commitment to making Juneteenth a federal holiday reflects her desire to preserve African American history and educate future generations about their ancestors’ struggles and triumphs.

  13. Waniya Baig says:

    Great job at highlighting the traumatic events that occurred in young Opal Lee’s life. Opal Lee’s first-hand experiences with racism go to show the motivation behind her activism for Civil Rights and the recognition of Juneteenth.

  14. Tanika Charles says:

    This was a very informative article on Opal Lee, her early life, and her journey to becoming an activist for the celebration and historical solidification of Juneteenth as a holiday.

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