Meet Opal Lee — The Woman Who Fought To Make Juneteenth A US Holiday

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On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law officially making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The push to get the historic day recognized at the federal level had been decades in the making, and 94-year-old Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” had championed efforts for years. 

Lee told NPR that the wait for Juneteenth being a US holiday has been 155 years 11 months and 28 days in the making. “And now we can all finally celebrate. The whole country together,” Lee said after the House passed a bill officially establishing June 19 as a federal holiday last year. Lee stood beside Biden as he signed the bill into law the following day. 

Lee’s work started more than 40 years ago as a community activist in Texas. She joined the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which organized local Juneteenth celebrations but “really doubled down in 2016” by “going bigger.” 

“I knew I just had to spread the word about Juneteenth to everybody,” Lee told the outlet, so she started working on getting national recognition of Freedom Day. A city-by-city walking campaign from her home in Fort Worth to the nation’s capital allowed Lee to get the word out, speaking to communities, and walking two and a half miles in each city to symbolize the two and a half years it took for enslaved people in Galveston, Texas to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

“I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice,” Lee said laughingly, recalling the campaign, but things didn’t turn out initially. 

She did make it to Congress, and had a petition signed by 1.5 million Americans, but, “it wasn’t a success,” Lee said. But given that only four new federal holidays have been added to the calendar in the last century, Lee had a lot stacked against her. 

Technically, there’s no holiday that the president or Congress can force all 50 states to recognize, instead, it binds federal employees to the holiday. Each state creates its own holiday, if they choose, to recognize it. According to an estimate by the White House, a federal holiday costs the government $660 million to cover all federal employees’ payroll, which prompted the opposition to making Juneteenth, even MLK Day, a federal holiday. 

Lawmakers like Sheila Jackson Lee previously said concerns about price were a distraction to the bigger picture.

“I don’t think that we will lose our shirt by adding only one other holiday that commemorates the life, the legacy, and the history [of] African Americans,” Jackson Lee told NPR. “Am I to believe that it is too costly to have one other holiday that commemorates our history,” the Houston Democrat added. 

For the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” seeing the day become federally recognized was "like a dream.” 

“I knew I would see it happen in my lifetime, but I have to keep my cool.”

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