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Meet Opal Lee — The Woman Who Fought To Make Juneteenth a U.S. Holiday

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law officially making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The push to get the historic day recognized at the federal level had been decades in the making, and 94-year-old Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” had championed efforts for years.

Lee told NPR that the wait for Juneteenth being a US holiday has been 155 years 11 months and 28 days in the making. “And now we can all finally celebrate. The whole country together,” Lee said after the House passed a bill officially establishing June 19 as a federal holiday last year. Lee stood beside Biden as he signed the bill into law the following day.

Lee’s work started more than 40 years ago as a community activist in Texas. She joined the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which organized local Juneteenth celebrations but “really doubled down in 2016” by “going bigger.”

“I knew I just had to spread the word about Juneteenth to everybody,” Lee told the outlet, so she started working on getting national recognition of Freedom Day. A city-by-city walking campaign from her home in Fort Worth to the nation’s capital allowed Lee to get the word out, speaking to communities, and walking two and a half miles in each city to symbolize the two and a half years it took for enslaved people in Galveston, Texas to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

“I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice,” Lee said laughingly, recalling the campaign, but things didn’t turn out initially.

She did make it to Congress, and had a petition signed by 1.5 million Americans, but, “it wasn’t a success,” Lee said. But given that only four new federal holidays have been added to the calendar in the last century, Lee had a lot stacked against her.

In 2023 the Grandmother of Juneteenth was gifted the land that her family’s home sat on 80 years ago before a racist mob damaged their property.

According to WFAA, Habitat for Humanity gave Lee, 97, back the land that her family previously owned in Fort Worth, Texas.

Lee,initially contacted Gage Yager, the CEO of Trinity Habitat for Humanity, when she noticed the organization owned the lot. She offered to buy the land, but Yager said he would instead gift it to her.

“You know, it pulls up on my phone, I say, ‘Hey Opal, how are you doing?’” Yager told WFAA. “And she’s like, ‘You guys own my lot at 940 East Annie.’ She’s like, ‘Gage, can I buy that lot from you?’ And I say, ‘You know Opal, we’re not going to sell you that lot. But we’ll give you that lot.’”

The organization is also building a home for Lee on the land.

“I could have done a holy dance, I tell you,” Lee told WFAA. “That was really, oh boy!”

The building broke ground in September amid Lee’s birthday.

“We’re there to partner with a friend to build a home and in a little way erase a big negative from all those years ago,” Yager said. “How can it not be, with all the hate and violence that’s been out there … to play a small part in a bigger story and hopefully a narrative that’s going in a good direction.”

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