Opal Lee first made national headlines in 2016, when the then-89-year-old walked more than 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., in a campaign to convince lawmakers to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday (a designation it finally received in 2021). Seven years after her historic walk, Lee’s activism continues to make news. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, and this year was honored as the second Black woman to have her portrait hung in the Texas Senate chamber. Both of her alma maters, the University of North Texas and Wiley College, awarded her honorary doctorates this year, and a new affordable housing complex, The Opal, is being built in her honor in Fort Worth, as is the National Juneteenth Museum she’s long advocated for.
At her home on Fort Worth’s Southside, Lee’s dining table is surrounded by decades’ worth of memorabilia. There’s a photo of her with President Biden as he signed Juneteenth into law, and the portrait options for her framed piece in the Texas Capitol. A silky-red stole is embroidered with her family’s names, surrounded by family photos. She shares the stories behind each photo on her wall, pointing out loved ones and describing the trials they endured. Lee’s grandparents, parents, son, and Lee herself all lost homes to fires. In fact, the very home we held our interview in has also caught on fire. “We’ve had tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, but hey, we’re still moving; we’re still praising God,” she said. At 96, Lee remains focused on the future, which includes her yearly 2.5-mile walk on Juneteenth. She spoke with Texas Monthly about her life and career.
Texas Monthly: Can you walk me through the moment you decided that it was time to walk?
Opal Lee: Well, what happened? I had a kind of itch. You have to know that I have met Dr. Ronald Myers, who is a medical doctor, a minister, and a jazz musician all rolled into one. And Doc Myers had been responsible for the 42 states that had some kind of celebration about Juneteenth. I think maybe some of Doc rubbed off on me because he was adamant about Juneteenth being a national holiday. So, hey, I took up the torch.
TM: Did you anticipate the kind of support you received from your home state and across the country on your walk?
OL: No. I think I was 89 when I decided this is what I was going to do. And so I met with my church, my pastor, the musicians, a county commissioner, and the school board members. They gave me the send-off, and I did these two and a half miles. And then the next day started where I left off. And people joined me and walked with me. We had signs, and we sang. We just had a good time.
Everywhere I went, people were so nice to me. I mean, in Shreveport, Texarkana, Little Rock, St. Louis, Denver, Colorado Springs, Chicago, Atlanta—everybody was so nice. I left September 2016, [and] I actually got to Washington in January 2017. Now, I didn’t walk all 1,400 miles, but I did walk some hundreds of miles. And we asked President Obama to walk with us from the Frederick Douglass House to the Capitol. He was in Chicago. I didn’t get what I wanted, but P. Diddy helped me get 1,500,000 signatures that we took to Congress. Oh, I was so happy!
TM: How are you planning on celebrating Juneteenth this year?
OL: We start Juneteenth with a breakfast of prayer. They’re going to live stream the walk in Fort Worth and the one in L.A. and one in Philadelphia. Then we do a flag-raising and a 2.5-mile walk. That symbolizes that the enslaved people in Texas didn’t know they were free for two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, there’s a pageant, Miss Juneteenth, and we look forward to that. Then we have the Erma Hadley Banquet. Erma Hadley was, I guess you’d say, the provost of all the junior colleges in Tarrant County, and so this banquet is in her honor.
What we’re trying to get people to understand is that Juneteenth is freedom. And I don’t mean just for Black people, or Texas people. It’s for freedom for everybody. And we want people to join together, enjoy meeting each other, find out what you can do to help alleviate the situation we have. I’m talking about joblessness and homelessness and health care some people can get and others can’t, and climate change that we are responsible for. They need to know what to do. So this is one of our aims, to make people aware that freedom is for everybody. I’m advocating that we celebrate from the nineteenth of June to the fourth of July. I want us to celebrate that long.
TM: How do you think that Americans’ understanding of Juneteenth has changed over the past two years, since it was made a federal holiday?
OL: I think they are just beginning to see. I’m hoping that it will unify people. You know, we’re not free until we’re all free. And we’re not all free from [unemployment, homelessness, hunger]. We’ve got so many things that we need to attend to, and I contend we can do it so much better if we’re all on the same page.
TM: On Juneteenth in 1939, when you were twelve, white rioters destroyed your family’s home in Fort Worth. Can you share that story?
OL: My father left Marshall [in East Texas] to come to Fort Worth during the Depression to find work. He was gonna send for his family. He never quite got around to it. My mom sold all the possessions that were left because the house had burned. And that was for train fare for herself and the three of us; I had two brothers. If we got to Fort Worth on Saturday, my mom was working in somebody’s kitchen on Sunday. My parents had worked real hard, and they bought a house on Annie Street.
On the nineteenth of June, people started gathering. The paper says there were about five hundred of them and that the police couldn’t control the mob. When my dad came home from work with a gun, police told him, “If you bust a cap, we’ll let the mob have you.” And so our parents sent us to friends several blocks away, and they left under the cover of darkness. Those people drove the furniture out; they did despicable things. Our parents had to buy another home. They never, ever discussed it with us. Never.
TM: You were a public school teacher for many decades. What’s it like having worked in the education system and then seeing where it is now, with controversies over banned books and DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] education?
OL: I think sometimes we’re going backwards. It’s ridiculous that they’re taking books out of the schools. I think children need to be taught what has happened in our society. I’m adamant that if they know, they’ll be sure that it doesn’t happen again. The schools are evolving, and let’s hope they evolve for the better. I pray that they will, that this phase will pass and something else will take its place. We’ve survived those kinds of things, and we will survive this.
TM: What gives you hope?
OL: I’m hoping for an education for everybody. Public schools—fine, but they need to be tweaked, you know. So many people are left who can’t afford college tuition. I think that it could be just like public schools, free for everyone. If students who can’t afford college were admitted, and they came with their ideas, oh! Wow! It boggles the mind what could be accomplished. I pray that it happens.
NM: What is one thing you want all Texans to know about Juneteenth?
OL: I want them to realize that we can get more done together than separate. I want them to realize that we are one people. I want whites to understand that Blacks bleed red blood. We are all the same in the sight of God. And we have from him the fact that we are our brother’s keeper, that we are supposed to look after each other regardless.
As great as the country is, it could be so much greater if we realized what could be done together. We are the richest country in the world and there’s no need to have homeless people or jobless people or people who can’t get health care. There’s no reason for that. I’ll tell you: I just know that we can do better than how we do. And I’m gonna keep on walking and keep on talking till somebody listens.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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