Why does Juneteenth mark the start of freedom for everybody?

February 10, 2023

February is Black History Month and to celebrate we are joined by the remarkable trailblazer Ms. Opal Lee, often referred to as “The Grandmother of Juneteenth”. Ms. Opal is the oldest living board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation and was present when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act bill that established June 19 or “Juneteenth” as a federal holiday. At 90 years of age, she started a walking campaign from Fort Worth, TX to Washington, DC to bring awareness to the need for celebrating Juneteenth nationally. Ms. Opal was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work to bring awareness to the contributions and struggles of African Americans in the United States, as well as her mission to create a more equitable society for humanity. Join us to hear her incredible story, what the pen President Biden used to sign the bill means to her, and what she hopes the next generation will take on next.

- Hello, everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him and welcome to the next episode of Here to Help. For everyone's accessibility, I'll start with a quick visual description of myself. I'm a middle-aged man with dark rimmed glasses. I'm wearing a black sweater and a blue t-shirt and behind me is the North Austin skyline. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day. And what powers that mission is people. Here to help is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. As part of our celebrations here at Indeed for Black History Month, my very special guest today is the remarkable trailblazer Ms. Opal Lee, often referred to as the Grandmother of Juneteenth. Ms. Opal is a retired teacher and counselor and longtime community activist. She is the oldest living board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. And she campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. In 2016, at the age of 89, Ms. Opal embarked on a four month long symbolic walk from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, DC, walking two and a half miles each day to symbolize the two and a half years it took for the Emancipation Proclamation News to reach Texas. In 2021, Ms. Opal stood with President Biden as he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act bill that established June 19th or Juneteenth as a federal holiday. And she received the first pen he used to sign the document. Ms. Opal was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and recognition of her work to bring awareness of the contributions and struggles of Black Americans in the United States, as well as her mission to create a more equitable society for all humanity. She served as chairperson of the community food bank and has worked with organizations including Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, Habitat for Humanity, and the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Fort Worth Black populace. Ms. Opal, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thank you for having me, Chris. I know I'm going to enjoy this.

- Well, let's start where we always start these conversations by just checking in. How are you doing today right now?

- I'm in really, oh, I tell everybody that I'm in the pink. That's what we used to say years ago. We were in the pink.

- Well, that is wonderful to hear. So we have a lot to to cover today, but let's start for the folks who might not know, we have listeners all over the world. And for anyone who's listening who may not know, can you describe yourself what Juneteenth is all about?

- Well, I guess I'd have to tell them about how General Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston, Texas with several thousand colored troops. This is while the Civil War was going on. And what he did was to read general order number three that said all enslaved people were free. Those troops spread out all over Galveston to tell that to everybody. But when the enslaved came in from their work and the general had nailed this to the door of Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church somebody read that to them. Oh, I tell you, we started having the best joyful time that you could ever think of. I tell you, they probably did holy dances. I've tried, but the kids said I'm twerking, so it doesn't work.

- Well, thank you. That's a very vivid description and I'd love to help folks understand your connection to this day. I'd love to go back to a pivotal moment in your own story that has made this celebration so important to you. So can you please share the story of what happened on East Annie Street on June 19th of 1939 when you were just 12 years old?

- My parents had moved from Marshall, Texas to Fort Worth to find work for my father during the Depression. And they worked hard. They put a down payment on a house on Annie Street and my mom had it fixed up so nice. But on the 19th of June, people started gathering and the paper says it was 500 of them. Paper says there were policemen who couldn't control the mob. And when my dad came home from work with a gun, the police told him if he bust a cap, we'll let the mob have you. Our parents sent us to friends several blocks away. They left under cover of darkness. Those people drug the furniture out, set it on fire, and did some despicable things. But our parents never, ever discussed it with us, never. And they worked like Trojans. They bought another home.

- Well, you were one of the early organizers of the Juneteenth celebration in Fort Worth, but I'd love to hear when did you first get the inspiration to do the work to say this should become a national and federal holiday?

- Oh, I don't know. I've known Juneteenth, about Juneteenth ever since I was knee high to a duck. We had Juneteenth celebrations in Marshall, Texas. But what happened was I realized I've raised four children, I've gone to colleges and universities, I had taught school, I taught third grade so long I was beginning to act like them so they gave me another position. I hadn't done several things, but I don't know if you've ever had a itch. I don't know if you ever know there's something you haven't done and you got to get it done. That's the way I felt when I was about 89. And so I decided that if I walked from Fort Worth to Washington, DC, about 1,400 miles, somebody would take notice. And they did. I started, I walked from Fort Worth, to Arlington, to Grand Prairie, to Dallas, to Joppa, Box Spring, when my team said, "You won't be doing it that way," because somebody had promised us the use of an RV and they decided what I was doing was too political. So they kept their old RV. But I was invited all over the United States. I mean Shreveport, Texarkana, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Denver, Colorado Springs, let's see, Atlanta, and Chicago. I was invited everywhere. And so if I left like September, 2016, I actually got to Washington January, 2017. And I had asked President Obama to walk with me from the Frederick Douglass House to the Capitol, but he was in Chicago so I didn't get what I wanted. But with the help of P. Diddy, we got 1,000,500 signatures that we took to Congress. I tell you, that was a good time. And then the President called and said he was going to sign that bill into law. Oh. Anyway, we made it to the White House on time and I was delighted. I still pinch myself to see if it really happened and it did.

- Can you talk about that moment of being there to actually stand with President Biden to witness that signing, and then to have him hand that pen to you and you still have that pen?

- I tell you, I don't know how I was so humble to have that happen. And the President of the United States hands you the pen that he just had. I still have it and I'm going to put it on display when we finish the National Juneteenth Museum that's going to be in Fort Worth, Texas 2025. I want 'em to hurry up 'cause I want to be here when it happens. We got to raise some $70 million, but we're raising 40 million right here in Fort Worth. Then, we'll come to you, your young folk who are out there and ask you for 30 million. It's going to be fabulous. And that pen is going to have a special place where everybody can see it.

- Well, one of the things that we had a chance to talk about last week that I want to talk about is what Juneteenth means. It's much bigger, I think, than what some people think. And I'll admit that I grew up in California. I lived in the East Coast. I had never heard of Juneteenth until I moved in my mid twenties to Houston in 1993. And that was the first that I ever heard of it. And at the time, what I thought was that, oh, this is a Texas only celebration, but it's very clear that Juneteenth is not just a Texas thing. Can you talk about what it actually means beyond that?

- I'm glad you asked. Juneteenth means freedom, and I don't mean just for Black people or just for Texas. It means freedom for everyone. And as home as we have joblessness, and homelessness, and healthcare that some people can get and others can't, climate change that we are so responsible for, until we eradicate those things, we are not free. And we've got to join together and get rid of them. So I'm going to stay, I'm going to keep on walking and keep on talking, and hope somebody listens that we've simply got to do the best we can as quick as we can so we aren't eradicated off the face of the earth.

- I'd love to hear you talk some more about this. So Juneteenth is what a lot of people know you for, but that is hardly the only thing that you have focused your activism on. So much of your work is really around what you just described, building a more equitable society for all of humanity. Can you talk about your community work specifically with Unity Unlimited and what you're doing with Opal's Farm?

- Okay, I'd have to go back further and tell you how I was sort of taking food to people, which I still do, people who are bedridden in wheelchairs can't stand in the lines at the food banks. And that one burned. But there was this huge facility behind my house that was up for sale for $1.5 million. And I had nerve enough to ask for it. And they let us, they leased it to us for $4,000 a month. I nearly had a hemorrhage. Where are we going to get $4,000? But we paid it for 11 months. And the month we didn't have the money, the people who owned it came to us and said, "You are doing a good job in this neighborhood," 'cause we were servicing 500 families a day. And they gave us that facility. $1.5 million. And it's still an operation and still people are coming for food. Well, I polled people standing in line and asked anybody wanted to farm. See, I spent some summers on the farm, my grandfather's farm in Texarkana, Arkansas. And 66 of 'em said they didn't mind farming. So we chose to work with the people who'd been incarcerated, couldn't find a job, and the time they had spent in prison would not be considered time lost. We've got a college who's really, if you've been in a penal situation in Texas, you know about farming. And so we've got Tarleton State University who's willing to give these young people accreditation. And we are about to acquire land so that there'll be dormitories for them so that the we'll have a processing plan. I can't begin to tell you how far reaching this is going to be.

- Yeah, it's a really profound thing to think about. Obviously, at Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is why we exist. And jobs and economic opportunity have been at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, going back to Dr. King. Maybe not everyone remembers that, but that really is what he was focused on was economic equality and opportunity. And it remains one of the most important civil rights issues today. I know you have a program called Empowering You that your organization runs. Can you talk about that and and the role there?

- Yes. The young people, as part of our Juneteenth celebration, you have to know that it's just not a festival. It has components and Empowering You is one of its components. There is also, oh gosh, so many other parts to it, but you asked me about Empowering You and that's what I'm going to tell you about. Young people, there are booths and there might be a booth that tells you how to get your GED, there might be a booth, several booths that will have colleges that will show you how to enroll. They are booths that would show you if you are not interested in somebody's college how to go into business for yourself. I mean, there's a whole array of things that young people are shown that they can do themselves. They don't have to wait. And now I'm fixing to go off on a tangent because I have just read an article about Charles Barkley, think, big star. And his daughter just graduated from one of the nice big universities and he was so pleased, but he also was concerned that there are many young people who are smart as his daughter, but they can't get to college. And I want his telephone number 'cause I want to tell him, "Hey, you've got the means in your hand." And I don't mean money, but he knows so many people and he doesn't have to start another organization. So if you know Charles Barkley, you tell him to call me.

- We'll put out the word on that. One thing that I mentioned in the intro and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. In acknowledgement of all of this incredible life's work that you've done, last year, you had the ultimate honor of being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And I heard you say that it was, what it meant was it was a chance to sit at the table. Can you talk about what that means and what you hope the next generation might accomplish in using their voices like you to bring about change?

- Oh, they can, they can, the young people can. And so what I say to them is make yourself a committee of one. You know people who aren't on the same page as your own. Change their minds and their minds can be changed. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And it's up to the young people to do that, to change people's minds. Now, it's not going to happen in a day. It's going to take some time, but we don't have guns. But these youngsters have sharp minds and they can talk to people. They can show them how important it is that we all are on the same page, that we are all needing to eradicate the things that are holding us back. And oh, if I can just get them to understand that we all bleed red blood, every one of us. So what is it that I'm dark and you're light, and there's a difference. If you were blind, you wouldn't notice it. So I'm telling people, we've got to get rid of that stigma we got to work together or we're going to die as fools.

- So you are clearly living proof that taking responsibility for a cause you believe in and continuing year after year to fight for it, you can bring about great change. Now that you've accomplished this one thing, what else do you hope to see accomplished in your lifetime?

- Oh, I'm really adamant about healthcare and abortion rights. How come you fellas think it's your responsibility to tell us what we can do with our own cotton picking bodies? That's ridiculous! Well, I'm sorry, but healthcare for everybody is important. We'd save so much money if we didn't have the problems we have. If people could teach us about the foods we eat, exercising, or whatever it takes for us to live longer, and don't ask me how I got to be 96 'cause I'm doing what everybody else is doing except I don't smoke, and I don't drink, and I don't carouse. But oh, there's so much that we need to do to help each other. And I want to keep talking, and keep walking, and hope somebody listens.

- Well, one of the themes of Here to Help and all of the discussions we have, I spend my time talking to people who have dedicated their lives to helping others. One of the things that I'm interested in is where that inspiration comes from. Where do you get the drive to want to give back and dedicate your life to helping others?

- I think it really is a family thing 'cause arts goes way back to my grandparents. They left Cotton Valley, Louisiana in two covered wagons with five children. They ended up in Texarkana, Arkansas. My grandfather had 40 acres in Texarkana and 40 acres in . And he ended up with 19 children, three sets of twins. My mom was not a twin, but there was a brother and they were both born in April so everybody thought they were twins. But my grandpa couldn't hire hands, so he grew them. And besides being a prosperous farmer, everybody made their way to my grandpa for advice, and for tools, and for food, and for this, that, and the other. In fact, he would bring somebody to my grandmother and say, "Mattie," her name was Mattie, give him something to eat, find a place for him to sleep, give him a job to do. And she did. Everybody had a job. I don't care how small you were, you had a job to do. And you didn't want to incur his wrath if you didn't do your job. So I don't know, I think it might be in my DNA. Number one, you got to help somebody other than your family if you can. And we can. And so we pass it on to our children. We have these reunions every two years. And boy, you ought to be there. We do have fun.

- Well, one thing that I know is going to be on a lot of folks' mind, and I want to make sure we get to this before we wrap up, if people want to find out more about the amazing work that you do about the museum, about your foundation, where can people go to get more information?

- It's, let's see, it's called TheRealOpalLee.com. I think that's it. But since you brought it up, let me tell you. I wrote a book called "Juneteenth for Children." And I'm wanting it in classrooms, I want it in libraries. It's a story for children of how we got to these United States. I wish I had time to read it for you, but I know you don't. But see that the children get it.

- That's fantastic. We'll make sure to put up with the episode when we post it a link to the website and a link to to where they can find the book and any other information. Before we wrap up with the closing question, is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't covered that you think people should be thinking about when they think about Juneteenth or especially during this month, which is I like to say every month is Black History month, but we spend time now talking about it. So what would you want people to come away thinking?

- Again, I want them to realize that they too are responsible for where we are and they can change that. There does not need to be a difference because we all want the same thing, a decent place to live, some wheels under us, schools for our children to go, want those children to succeed at being what they want to be. And I don't see it being difficult. Now, you're going to have some bumps in the road 'cause I did. Oh, if I would begin to tell you about me in school, I don't know if you'd want to hear it, but let me see. I was 16 when I finished high school and my mom wanted me to go to college. And she was going to send me to Wiley back in Marshall, but I got married. She was so disappointed, she wouldn't even go to the wedding at Baker Chapel, our church. And it took me four years and four babies to realize I was going to have to raise that husband too. So I cut my losses and went home to my mother with four babies and had nerve enough to say, "I'm ready to go to college now." And she says, "I've got no money to send you to nobody's college." She says, "I'll keep your children." I worked like a Trojan to get that money to go to Wiley. And when I got it, I spent it. I bought those children a television so she wouldn't have to run all over the community looking for them. And I went to Wiley without a dime. Now, I didn't quit the job I had up here 'cause I didn't know what those people were going to tell me. So my mom kept the job during the week. I'd come back and work it on weekends. She'd collect the paycheck. We both looked alike, so didn't nobody notice. We got the work done. And I got through in three and a half years. I couldn't stay down four years. I came back to Fort Worth and got a job teaching. Paid $2,000 a year. I don't know if you got children, but you can't feed 'em on $2,000 a year. And so I got another job. If I worked at school from 8:00 to 3:00, there'd would be a car waiting for me. And I'd go to Lockheed Martin at 4:00 and work to 12:00. I'd still be working like that, but they laid off with the plants from time to time. I'm telling you that if you've got something that you know is important for your family and for others, I don't care how hard it is, I don't care how many times you have to stop, you have to positively get it done.

- That's a remarkable story, part of your much larger remarkable story. And I want to thank you so much for sharing that with us. As we come to a close, I always end with the same question. And so I'd love to hear your take on this. Since the start of the pandemic, we're coming up now on about three years since the the whole world has been through an extraordinary set of challenges. And through this, my question to you is, is there anything that you've seen or experienced that has in spite of all these challenges left you with some hope for the future?

- Yes. I think our young children, I think maybe the parents, I think our children are beginning to see that pandemic hurts us all. It doesn't shift. It doesn't just hurt Black people, and Mexican people, or old people. The pandemic has gotten us all in such a flux that it behooves us to look after our neighbor. It does because we are all in the same boat. And I think when this is over, and it's not over, we are going to be in a better position. There are going to be people who understand that it's going to take all of us, every one of us to get I'm going to say to the other side.

- Well, that is a beautiful conclusion, I think. Ms. Opal Lee, I just want to thank you so much for joining us today to share. But I really want to thank you for everything that you've done throughout your lifetime and that will clearly endure for many generations to come.

- Thank you. And just know that I'm everybody's grandma.