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'We Need Freedom From Fear': 93-Year-Old Opal Lee Celebrates Juneteenth Amid Protests

Inside a historic red-brick home in Fort Worth, 93-year-old Opal Lee, her granddaughter and volunteers answer calls, shift papers and walk back and forth from the library to the dining room as they plan for this year’s socially-distant celebration of Juneteenth. 

“Opal Lee has been very much in the forefront in making sure that Juneteenth is celebrated,” said Fort Worth historian Carol Roark. 

For over 40 years, Lee has led the city’s event planning for the holiday. The last decade or so, she’s been pushing to make Juneteenth a national holiday, making several marathon walks on the road to Washington, D.C. Around Lee’s living room and dining room there are thousands of photos and proclamations that show her work through the years. 

In Tarrant County Juneteeth is a celebrated holiday.
Credit Alejandra Martinez / KERA
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KERA
Opal Lee has her Juneteeth achievements on display. In Tarrant County, Juneteeth is a celebrated holiday.

“It’s like a museum. She wants it to be like a museum,” said Dione Sims, Lee’s granddaughter.

Friday, a Texas state holiday, marks the 155th 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 1863. Most Texas slaves didn't learn they were free for two-and-a-half-years. That's why Lee plans to walk 2.5 miles on Friday. 

“And if you can imagine the visual of Ms. Opal walking and the string of cars as far as the eye can see behind her going straight up Lancaster. It is just a totally awesome vision,” Sims said. 

Lee will be leading the walk starting at the Fort Worth Convention Center, and others will follow behind her to the Will Rogers Coliseum in a caravan of cars. 

Juneteenth is a day of celebration. It commemorates freedom and achievement, but with the state of race relations today, Opal Lee said it’s hard to ignore how this year's Juneteenth feels different. 

“I just can not understand in 2020 why we are still going through the same things that people went through in slavery time,” Lee said. 

Lee’s a petite black woman with curly gray hair and long light pink acrylic nails. She taps them on the table as she explains. 

"I just can not understand in 2020 why we are still going through the same things that people went through in slavery time." - Opal Lee

“I feel like maybe whites are afraid,” Lee said. “And we are not people you need to be afraid of. We’re the people doing your cooking and cleaning and looking out for your children. What’s to be afraid of? Why the animosity? I can’t fathom it.”

She’s talking about the killing of George Floyd, police brutality and racism. Lee’s been watching the nationwide protests. Her granddaughter Dione Sims said even today, blacks are not truly free. 

“And then you get to 2020 still celebrating freedom and you have things like George Floyd happening and you go ‘Well, if I got freedom from slavery to 1968 - right to vote. What are we needing to get freedom from now?'" Sims said. “Right now we need freedom from fear.” 

Planning for this year’s Juneteeth has taken many turns. First, coronavirus. Then, the surge of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. 

Lee is staying hopeful. 

“We think Juneteenth is the catalyst. We think it’s a unifier,” she said. “And when we get a million signatures and Congress realizes it's not just a little old lady in tennis shoes that they are going to take notice and do something.”

Now, it seems her wish might come true. U.S. Senator John Cornyn announced on Thursday afternoon that he will introduce bipartisan legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

In 2016, Opal Lee led a symbolic Juneteeth walk to Washington, DC.
Credit Alejandra Martinez / KERA
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KERA
In 2016, Opal Lee led a symbolic Juneteeth walk to Washington, DC.

Got a tip? Email Reporter Alejandra Martinez at amartinez@kera.org. You can follow her on Twitter @_martinez_ale.

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KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, in the spirit of Giving Tuesday, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.