Opal Lee was 12 years old in 1939 when a mob burned down her family’s home in Fort Worth, Texas. “My mother had fallen and hurt herself on a public bus, and she got a little sum of money that she used to buy a house,” she remembers. “I guess they didn’t believe we deserved to have it.”
Her father, Otis Flake, grabbed his shotgun to protect his wife Mattie and three children from the angry crowd. But when the sheriffs arrived, they told him that if he fired, they would turn the mob loose. So Otis Flake and his family left the smoldering wreckage and never looked back.
But like so many African Americans before and since, Opal Lee wasn’t broken by the experience. After marrying at 16 and giving birth to four children, Lee earned a college degree, became a schoolteacher, social worker, food bank coordinator, and much beloved pillar of the Fort Worth community who, at age 93, still delivers meals to disabled and elderly residents. And as long as her health holds up, Lee hopes to walk her way into the history books by campaigning to have June 19 declared a national holiday known as “Juneteenth.”
Since 2016, Lee has walked 2.5 miles in Fort Worth each June 19 to raise awareness about the African-American tradition, and has also done so in 20 cities across the country. Juneteenth honors the memory of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas and read General Order Number Three, which informed the public about President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln had signed the document on January 1, 1863, but it took another two and a half years for news of freedom to reach the nearly quarter of a million slaves in Texas.
As America experiences a national reckoning on race, more and more people are amplifying the history behind Juneteenth and its connection to modern issues such as police brutality and economic inequality. On social media, in schools and local government, people use “Freedom Day,” as its also known, to focus on African-American history and victory over struggle and barriers. (Here's how the recent racial violence reflects a brutal American legacy.)
Every June 19 in Fort Worth, Lee is the Grand Dame of an annual city-wide celebration that includes a beauty pageant, conversations, and a caravan through the city. (This year’s event will implement social distancing and masks to protect participants.) She’s even written a children’s book about Juneteenth. The last stop on her walking tour was in Las Vegas in February 2020—when COVID-19 halted her journey. But she’s fully prepared to resume once the coronavirus lockdown ends.
Lee’s grandparents, who were descended from slaves, had 19 children. Her own four offspring produced 27 grandchildren, and at least 15 great-grandchildren. She invokes her family as she explains her passion about sharing the history and meaning of Juneteenth, summarizing it in one word: “Hope.”
“I’m a Christian, and my bible tells me that the people who came before me went through a whole lot of things,” Lee says. “And I figure we’re on the same road. We’re gonna go through struggle after struggle until we come to the Promised Land. You gotta have some hope, because hopelessness wears you out, it drains you. And Juneteenth reminds me that even when there’s struggle, you can still have hope.”
That sentiment is especially notable in 2020, as America navigates a fresh era of racial turmoil. Too often, American history portrays African Americans as passive participants in their own story, waiting to be delivered from struggle. But today’s outrage and protest sparked by ongoing race-related killings and other racial and economic injustices are as much a part of African-American history as they were a hundred years ago.
“During the [post-Civil War] Reconstruction period, African Americans were agents for change for their own lives during the nation’s transition,” says Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“African Americans did not lay down and let life happen to them. They fought at every turn, and it is important to tell that story. Too often, the story has been that they were fortunate to have non-African Americans writing the legislation to secure their freedom. But it was African Americans who were out there fighting the good fight, and they still are.”
Elliott can trace her father’s roots back to plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. Her paternal ancestors eventually migrated to what was known as Indian Territory during the late 19th century and owned businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma—including a hotel, a bank, and a department store, the last of which was burned down during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Though her mother’s family is from Houston, Elliott didn’t learn about Juneteenth until she was an adult well into her careers in marketing and law. Her expertise at delving into her family’s genealogy led to her current job, and to an understanding of Juneteenth’s significance for African Americans.
While the Emancipation Proclamation was pivotal to dismantling American slavery, Elliott says it was just a first step. “Freedom didn’t come for everyone, even on June 19,” she says. “The document only applied to the Confederacy, and so states like Maryland still did not abandon slavery. There were also slaves still owned in Indian territory, and some slaveowners relocated to states like Texas hoping to avoid the legislation. It took the 13th Amendment [in December 1865] to officially end slavery nationwide.”
Elliott says the first official Juneteenth commemorations were organized by the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government agency established in 1867 to provide support for newly liberated slaves, and spread as freed slaves migrated north and west. “There’s something to be said about African Americans’ self-awareness and their sense of place in this nation,” she says, “because we had these ideals that were supposed to come along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but not everyone was free.”
On Tuesday, June 16, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he would support legislation making Juneteenth a state holiday, and declared Friday a paid day off for executive branch state employees. Forty-seven other states and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday or a public observance. Businesses like Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have made it an official company holiday in response to the protests over racial injustice. These developments are part of a wave of actions over the last few weeks to dismantle the symbols of systemic racism in the U.S.: the retirement of the 131-year-old Aunt Jemima brand and acknowledging its roots in racist imagery, the removal of Confederate statues in several cities in the South, NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate flag at races, and the city of Gulfport’s removal of the Mississippi state flag because of the inclusion of Confederate imagery.
Though awareness of Juneteenth is by no means universal for African Americans, it ranges across socioeconomic and class lines, and is rooted in a sense of pride about historic contributions and sacrifices. Imani Cheers remembers celebrating Juneteenth as a child along with many other middle and upper middle-class families in Maryland’s suburban Prince George’s County. Her photojournalist father, D. Michael Cheers, was an editor for Ebony and Jet magazines over several decades. She recalls legendary photographer Gordon Parks working in her father’s basement darkroom when she about four years old.
“My father was someone who reminded us, yes, that Proclamation was extended, and in simplistic terms it freed the slaves in the United States,” says Cheers, an Associate Professor of Digital Storytelling at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “But it wasn’t lost on us that many people ‘did not get the memo.’ That’s how he put it.”
During Cheers’s youth, Juneteenth meant neighborhood barbecues and music—but not like the average Fourth of July cookout.
“It was rooted in history, and community elders who would share the historical context,” she says. Those conversations helped Cheers consider the possibility that some of her own ancestors had toiled as slaves, years after they’d been declared free.
Cheers says that over the past few years, her son Isaiah has celebrated Juneteenth in Houston with his godmother. This year, Cheers will celebrate with him in a Prince George’s County park. Though he’s only six years old, Cheers says she’s already had to have some tough conversations with Isaiah about slavery, race, and even white supremacy.
“I don’t have the luxury of providing him with a false narrative about race that I know a lot of my non-black friends do,” Cheers says. “They can just claim ignorance is bliss, but because Isaiah is six and he’s tall, there’s a moment that he’s going to go from being sweet and cute to unfortunately people viewing him as a threat. And that’s very, very soon. So we have those conversations.”
In fact, many younger African-American social justice activists like Morgan Barnhart intend to use Juneteenth 2020 as a platform for elevating racial issues.
The 27-year-old grocery clerk is co-organizing a Freedom Day March in Washington, D.C. on June 19, slated to begin at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and end at the Lincoln Memorial.
“This march just happens to be an extraordinary vision I had,” says Barnhart. “I am an African-American female who grew up in predominantly white surroundings. I was the token black friend through most of my childhood and adulthood, and I have experienced racism like many others. It always felt like many of the whites around me would never affirm the racism that occurred. The jokes were just jokes, and the sly comments were just comments. In this movement, for the first time, I have seen everyone talking about the systematic racism that still plagues this country. Now, it feels like it is being affirmed.”
For Opal Lee, that affirmation would culminate in all Americans acknowledging the country’s complex history with slavery, race, and equality through shared commemorations.
“I just keep thinking that if we were able to work together as a people, white folks, brown folks, black folks, we could accomplish something. I see Juneteenth as the unifier, bringing all folks together.”
In 2015, as a local journalist profiled Lee for a story about her campaign for a license plate acknowledging Juneteenth in Texas, he found an Associated Press report about the burning of the Flake family house nine decades ago.
He noticed the date: June 19, 1939. As they’d celebrated Juneteenth through the decades, none of Lee’s children or grandchildren knew it had occurred on that date. She’d forgotten it herself.
“Even though there’s still much work to be done, we have to celebrate the freedom that we have,” Lee says. “That’s what Juneteenth is about: celebrating freedom each step of the way.”
Rachel Jones, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, wrote about Maternal Mortality in the January 2019 issue of National Geographic Magazine.
Correction: This article originally misstated the document Union soldiers read to the public on June 19, 1865. They read General Order Number Three, which informed the people about the Proclamation.
Correction: This article originally misstated that Lee's grandparents were born slaves. They were descended from slaves.