When Opal Lee was growing up in Texas, she would spend Juneteenth picnicking with her family, first in Marshall, where she was born, then in Sycamore Park in Fort Worth, near the home she moved into at age 10.
She and her family lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in Fort Worth. When Mrs. Lee was 12, a mob of 500 white supremacists set fire to her home and vandalized it. The structure was destroyed, and no arrests were made.
Experiencing that hate crime pushed Mrs. Lee into a life of teaching, activism and, eventually, campaigning. In 2016, at the age of 89, she decided to walk from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., in an effort to get Juneteenth named a national holiday. She traveled two and a half miles each day to symbolize the two and a half years that black Texans waited between when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on Jan. 1, 1863, abolishing slavery, and the day that message arrived in Galveston, where black people were still enslaved, on June 19, 1865.
As Mrs. Lee approached 93 last year, Fort Worth celebrated Juneteenth with multiple days of festivities, including a parade, a walk/run 5K, a breakfast of prayer, art exhibits, a gospel festival and the Miss Juneteenth Pageant.
This year, as Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country, many companies have decided to make Juneteenth a day off for employees. New York and Virginia have announced that they plan to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees, and Mrs. Lee’s vision is closer than ever to its realization.
On June 17, The New York Times spoke to Mrs. Lee about what makes this year different and what she hopes will come of this moment.
What is your first memory of celebrating Juneteenth?
It was in Marshall, Texas, where I was born. We’d go to the fairgrounds to celebrate. It was like going to Christmas or Thanksgiving, we had such a good time.
Some people still compare Independence Day to Juneteenth. How would you explain the type of freedom and community that comes from celebrating Juneteenth?
The difference between Juneteenth and the 4th of July? Woo, girl! The fact is none of us are free till we’re all free. Knowing that slaves didn’t get the word for two and a half years after the emancipation, can’t you imagine how those people felt? They’d been watching — that’s what they call Watch Night services — every New Year’s, thinking freedom was coming. And then to find out they were free, even two and a half years after everybody else.
So, the 4th of July? Slaves weren’t free. You know that, don’t you? And so we just celebrate the hell out of the 4th of July, so I suggest that if we’re going to do some celebrating of freedom, that we have our festival, our educational components, our music, from June the 19 — Juneteenth — to the 4th of July. Now that would be celebrating freedom.
How do you think the protests for black lives that are happening around the country have shaped the way that people understand Juneteenth?
We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free, and we aren’t free yet. There’s so many disparities. You know, we need some decent education and some decent jobs that pay money, and we need health care and all kinds of things and if people would just get together and address these disparities, we’d be well on our way to being the greatest country in the world.
Right now lots of companies are making Juneteenth an official holiday. How does it feel to see your vision coming to fruition?
Ooh girl, I could do a holy dance. I’m so happy to see things coming to fruition and the fact that we are almost there making it a holiday. We started out talking about 100,000 signatures and now we’re saying let’s take a million signatures to Congress to let them know that it’s not just one little old lady in tennis shoes.
I hope they understand that we’re talking about a holiday like Presidents’ Day or Flag Day. We’re not talking about a paid holiday. However, I’m delighted to have the big companies give their employees the day off with pay.
What changes do you hope to see in our country beyond having Juneteenth recognized on a national level?
If we would unify, if we would get together and do something about homelessness, and do something about people having decent housing, and decent food, and they would have not only a place to stay but a decent education.
If we could just love one another, you know? If you could get past the color of my skin and love me like you do that boy next door to you.
This conversation has been edited.