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'Grandmother of Juneteenth' Opal Lee discusses her work to solidify the holiday


Many Americans are taking time today to celebrate Juneteenth. It's a U.S. federal holiday marking the end of slavery in this country. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863, but that, of course, was in the middle of the Civil War. So it wasn't until 2 1/2 years later, on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas - it wasn't until then that all enslaved Black people in the country were, in fact, proclaimed free.

It would take over a century more for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday. President Biden did that in 2021 - the culmination of years of campaigning by activists, including by our next guest, Opal Lee. She's a community leader in her native Texas and also known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth." Opal Lee, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

OPAL LEE: Thank you. And I'm just delighted to be on your show.

KELLY: We are delighted to have you with us. I want to start by making sure that people know about something you did in 2016. You were 89 years old at the time, and you set out to walk from your home in Fort Worth, Texas, all the way to Washington, D.C. That is 1,400 miles. This was part of your push to make Juneteenth a holiday.

LEE: I felt like if a little old lady in tennis shoes was walking from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., somebody would take notice.

KELLY: Yeah.

LEE: And they did.

KELLY: Yeah.

LEE: They did.

KELLY: And you did it how - 2 1/2 miles a day. Tell me why that number.

LEE: Well, 2 1/2, it represented 2 1/2 years that the enslaved didn't know they were free. Until General Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston, and he read what's known as General Order No. 3 that said all enslaved are free. Well, he took that and nailed it to the door of what's now Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And when the enslaved came in from their work, and somebody read that to them, they started celebrating, and we've been celebrating ever since.

KELLY: Wow. I am doing the math. Walking 2 1/2 miles a day, for a distance of 1,400 miles, that's well over a year. It's more than 500 days it took you.

LEE: Well, I sort of figured somebody would give me a ride along the way.


KELLY: Did people open up their homes to you along the way? Where did you stay?

LEE: Oh, they did. They did, I tell you. I didn't have anybody that was negative. And people joined in the walk with me, I had one fellow that I tried to give a flyer to. He brushed it aside. I decided he was late for work. So I didn't hold it against him.

KELLY: But other people were walking along just there with you?

LEE: Yes.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

LEE: Yes, they were, from town to town. And if I left September 2016, I actually got to Washington January 2017. And President Obama wasn't there. I didn't get to talk to him. But do you know we garnered 1,500,000 signatures? And we took that to Congress, and we were invited to the White House to see President Biden sign Juneteenth into law. Oh, I was a happy camper. I tell you, I could have done a Holy dance, but the kids say when I try, I'm twerking.

KELLY: (Laughter) I can picture you, how happy you must have been. I saw that President Biden just awarded you the Presidential Medal of Freedom just last month. When he draped that medal on you, what went through your mind?

LEE: My parents, my mom - how hard she worked and how often she would chastise me. Baby Opal, you do this, this and this. And baby Opal, be sure you do - I think she might be looking down and saying, it's about time you got it done.

KELLY: That's lovely. That's lovely. So you're thinking of the generations that came before?

LEE: Yes. They worked so hard. They endured hardships that we could never dream of. Yet, we've got our own problems, and I'm hoping that I'm going to keep on walking until they are solved. We've got homelessness and joblessness and health care that some of us can get and others can't, and climate change that we are responsible for. I just think if we don't do something about climate change, we're all going to hell in a handbasket.

KELLY: So on the civil rights front, what does activism look like for you today?

LEE: I'm going to keep on walking and talking because of the disparages that we have and hope that somebody does something about it. To be a whole people, to be one people is a goal that hasn't been realized yet. I want to be here when it happens.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I guess that's the last thing I want to ask you. You've worked so hard for Juneteenth to be recognized, for everybody in our country to know what it is, for it to be a federal holiday. What does it mean to you, knowing, hey, I help do this?

LEE: Oh, know what it means? That there's many things that still need to be done, and you can't rest on your laurels. You have to get busy doing them. And for me, I don't have that much time. I still want to see America as one America, not just African Americans or white Americans or Jewish Americans. I want us to be one people, and I hope the Lord lets me hang around long enough to see that.

KELLY: And you still walk 2 1/2 miles every Juneteenth?

LEE: Well, I did last Juneteenth. Let's see if I can do it this Juneteenth. I'm really going to start.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Opal Lee, the "Grandmother of Juneteenth." This was a total pleasure. I'm inspired. Thank you, and happy Juneteenth.

LEE: Happy Juneteenth to you too.

KELLY: And a quick update, Opal Lee did, at age 97, walk this Juneteenth. Her team says she walked and used a golf cart part of the way to cover those symbolic 2 1/2 miles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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