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Opal Lee was with President Biden at the White House on June 17 when he signed a bipartisan bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, the first national holiday since Martin Luther King’s Birthday was established in 1983.
On Sunday, July 4, the 94-year-old Ms. Lee, of Fort Worth, Texas, spoke to a crowd gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Evanston for a meet-and-greet and book signing for her new book, “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story”. A steady stream of attendees arrived at the three-hour event to snap photos with and speak to the woman known as “the Grandmother of Juneteenth.”
Juneteenth commemorates the true end of slavery with the celebration of complete emancipation throughout the United States. On June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Texas to free America’s remaining 250,000-plus enslaved people. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two and a half years before, but the order to free slaves was not recognized in parts of Texas.
Evanston celebrated Juneteenth on June 19 with a parade that drew hundreds, followed by an event at Ingraham Park that featured speakers, muralists, musical and spoken word performances, drumming, poetry, and dance.
Kemone Hendricks, founder of Evanston Present and Future, Evanston’s Juneteenth Parade and Mari & Mari Enterprise, hosted Ms. Lee for the July 4th visit, which included a tour of important Evanston sites, such as the Shorefront Legacy Center, Good to Go Jamaican Restaurant, Bethel AME Church-Evanston, and Bahai House of Worship for North America.
Despite the federal holiday becoming a reality, Ms. Hendricks felt it was important to acknowledge Juneteenth, especially on Independence Day. She wanted to honor Ms. Lee’s work in bringing attention and education to other Americans and legislators about the importance of Juneteenth to our shared history.
“It was really important for me to continue on with this book signing, and to celebrate her and all of her efforts and everything that she’s done to make sure that Juneteenth becomes a federal holiday,” said Ms. Hendricks.
Ms. Lee recounted her work since 2016 to advocate for a Juneteenth federal holiday.
“I’m still that little old lady in tennis shoes, getting in everybody else’s business. Maybe I should tell you, when I was about 80 years, I started thinking, ‘What else can be done to make Juneteenth a national holiday?’”
She credited the late Dr. Ronald V. Myers, founder of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, who died in 2018, saying she is sure he is aware of the legacy he has left.
“He is responsible for 43 states doing the celebration, some form of celebration for Juneteenth. He’s gone, but I think he may be looking down on this.”
Ms. Lee began her own Juneteenth advocacy in September 2016, inspiring residents in her local community of Fort Worth by walking two and half miles from her church. That journey eventually culminated at the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. in January 2017.
“Well, the next morning, I started where I left off, and I walked through Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Dallas, Fox Springs…” said Ms. Lee. “I was invited all over these United States: Shreveport, Texarkana, Little Rock, Port Smith, and Denver, Colorado Springs, and Madison, Wis., Atlanta, Chicago, North and South Carolina.”
She was aided on the symbolic walk by an RV donated for the occasion. In each city, she stopped to talk about Juneteenth.
“I kept on walking, and I kept on talking. And now, Juneteenth is a national holiday. I’m so…I don’t know how to say it, I was delighted to be able to go to the White House.”
To loud laughter and applause, she recalled how at the White House she was given a special message from President Biden, but she said she won’t reveal what he said.
“People asked me what the President said to me,” she said. “He whispered something. But I’m keeping it to myself.”
A former educator, Ms. Lee wrote her book to guide young children through the history of slavery and freedom in the U.S. in a way they could understand.
She offered advice to the attendees on fighting hate and prejudice in their communities, emphasizing the impact that just one person can make in turning the tide against racism.
“I want you to make yourselves a committee of one. Because if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. It’s up to us,” she said. “Nobody else is going to do it, and you know people who aren’t on the same page as you are, so it’s your job to change their mind. I’m asking each of you to be responsible for changing somebody’s mind.”