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More Than A Festival: Activist Opal Lee Reflects On Juneteenth Becoming A National Holiday

Opal Lee sits down while holding a pen, surrounded by a group of people including President Joe Biden.
Evan Vucci
Associated Press
People take photos as Opal Lee holds a pen and is seated where President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Fort Worth activist Opal Leewas recognized at a White House ceremony last Thursday as President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Lee worked for decades to gain national recognition for Juneteenth, which marks the day enslaved people in Texas were told they were free.


On The Juneteenth Bill Signing At The White House:

I was just so excited, and to actually be in the White House in the presence of the president and the vice president, that's mind boggling. I'm going to be able to tell my grandchildren who are grown, saw what happened, and so there are great grand kids, and great, great grand kids that I have to tell about it.

How There's More Work To Be Done:

If we got the nation's attention, then we're gonna try to keep it because there's so many disparities. I know there are so many people working, but we think we can help too, to address homelessness, joblessness, schools not teaching the truth, health disparities, the climate with the police that’s not good and then there’s climate change, all these things need some attention.

We need to know and heal this wound because it still exists, all the racism, all the killing, all those things are leftovers from slavery, and they need to be eradicated.

Christopher Connelly/KERA News

On The History Of Juneteenth And How To Celebrate

On June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston with some six, 7,000 colored troops to let those people know, and there were 250,000 of them in Texas, let them know that they were free. He really nailed that general order number three to the door of what’s now Reedy Chapel-AME Church. When they came in, and somebody read that to them, they began celebrating and we've been celebrating ever since. The one day is not enough. I keep advocating that we celebrate from the 19th of June to the 4th of July.

When we do Juneteenth, it’s just not a festival, there are so many things: The children, the music, the art. The evening of Juneteenth I want to see the fireworks, and this year they were phenomenal. I’ll be 95 by next Juneteenth so as long as my health lasts, I’ll be at it.

Got a tip? Email Galilee Abdullah at

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Galilee Abdullah is an arts reporter.