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Remembering Juneteenth Is 'Not Just A Black Thing,' Says Fort Worth's Opal Lee

Christopher Connelly
Opal Lee at her home in Fort Worth, Texas.

Opal Lee has lived 90 pretty remarkable years -- from the night, when she was a kid, that a mob of white protesters drove her family from their Fort Worth home, to her symbolic walk to Washington, D.C., last fall to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Monday marks the 152nd anniversary of the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston with the news that slavery had ended. But President Lincoln had actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. So most Texas slaves didn't learn they were free for two-and-a-half-years. 

Lee sat down with KERA at her Fort Worth home to discuss the historical and personal significance of Juneteenth and why it should be officially recognized.

Interview Highlights

On the personal significance of Juneteenth:

"The house my parents bought on Annie Street, right at New York, was a neat little place, a couple of bedrooms, and my mom had it fixed it up so nice. But the people in the neighborhood didn't want us there. They didn't want us there, and they had hatched this plot. And they gathered and began to throw rocks at the house, and they finally set it on fire. 

"The realtor, who sold it to my parents, went to the Texas & Pacific Station on Lancaster to get my father, who worked there. And he came back and he had a shotgun. Police told him, 'If you bust a cap, we'll let the mob have you.' The papers tell us that there were 500 people there. But it was a harrowing experience. My family never talked about it, and it actually happened on the 19th of June."

Why people need to remember Juneteenth:

"Listen, why should people care about the Holocaust? Hello? We simply have to make people remember these things. You don't know where you're going if you don't know where you came from. You need to remember so these things don't happen again. In the kind of climate we have now, anything could happen."

Why Juneteenth hasn't gained traction:

"Bless our souls, we tried hard to assimilate — take on the white folks' ways — and we were ashamed that we didn't know for two and a half years that we were free. And other states that did know, the people laughed at us, so we just sort of hunkered down. Now, I'm trying to get people to understand that slaves didn't free themselves, that it took abolitionists. It took Frederick Douglass, it took Harriet Tubman, it took Nat Turner — all these people to make people aware of slavery and the atrocities that were happening. It's not just a black thing, it's the right thing. None of us are free until we're all free." 

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.