After a lifetime of advocacy, a 1,400-mile walk to Washington, D.C., and a 2.5-mile trek through Fort Worth on Saturday afternoon in blazing heat, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” 95-year-old Opal Lee, says the work isn’t over yet.
“Juneteenth is freedom, and I’m advocating that we celebrate freedom from the 19th of June to the 4th of July, but I want you to make yourself a committee of one, because you know people who aren’t on the same page as you,” Lee said after her three-hour on-foot journey.
“You’re going to have to change their minds,” Lee continued. “We took 1.5 million signatures to Congress and we were prepared to take that many more when we got the call to the White House. Can you just imagine 3 million people on the same page? We could turn this country around.”
Lee, in her annual Walk for Freedom , led a march of hundreds of people, from the Historic Southside to downtown Fort Worth on Saturday morning. The 2.5-mile walk, which spanned about three hours, represented the 2.5 years Texas slaves waited for their freedom until Union troops arrived in 1865 to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 2016, the Fort Worth native launched her campaign with a walk to Washington, D.C. , in hopes of making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The 89-year-old at the time crossed over 14 states and 1,400 miles.
She relaunched the campaign in 2019, crossing over seven states before COVID-19 cut the trip short. And finally, last June, President Joe Biden signed a federal bill that nationally recognized the holiday . Lee was in attendance.
A proud hometown
“The best thing is, she lived to see it become a holiday,” Kimberly Edwards, 64, said.
Edwards, who said she grew up with Lee as her neighbor, also mentioned that the 95-year-old had spoken about her mission to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday for as long as she could remember.
“[She talked about this] all of her life,” Edwards said. “… She’s 95, she’s been through it. She’s seen how this world has really changed. It ain’t just about Black people. It’s about all of us.”
Rundee Smith, 35, also grew up in the Historic Southside, just down the street from 1050 Evans Ave., where Saturday’s walk began.
“You hear about legends in different states, different places, but to actually be in the same city? It’s a blessing,” Smith said, adding a similar sentiment as Edwards that the gathering has allowed people from all cultures and all over the state to come together.
“With her leading as an example, she’s leaving generational change,” Smith said. “You can’t erase history. A lot of times, people will try to cover it up and say, ‘Hey this is not what happened,’ but because it’s a holiday, our kids’ kids will have a chance … to be educated on how far God has brought us.”
For people like Smith and Edwards and 84-year-old Sarah Walker, who is also a neighbor of Lees and has known her for a “long time, long time,” the Juneteenth celebration has been something the Black community shared, and now it’s a city, state and nationwide recognition.
“Being a native of Fort Worth, there’s a park called the Greenway Park and we went down there every 19th of June and July 4th for celebration,” Walker said. “Finally it’s come out for more places to do things [for the holiday].”
Fort Worth’s Opal’s Walk For Freedom Day
Although some people learned about the meaning of Juneteenth in recent years, Lee’s granddaughter Dione Sims said the City of Fort Worth and its residents have done nothing but shower the 95-year-old in love and support.
“Even before it became a federal holiday, you guys did the caravan in 2020 with over 300 cars, following her when she did her first 2.5, here in Fort Worth, walk for Juneteenth,” Sims said. “I cannot wait to see the newscasts, to see the drones, that show how much Fort Worth loves the jewel that is my grandmother.”
After Lee’s journey across Fort Worth, in heat that hit over 100 degrees, Mayor Mattie Parker also announced that June 18 will be named Fort Worth’s Opal’s Walk For Freedom Day.
“She’s a teacher, an author, a pillar of the Fort Worth community and now really an example for the entire world and what it looks like to have the tenacity and a refusal to ever give up, no matter what,” Parker said. “She’s really the mayor of Fort Worth, let’s be honest, right? She represents what it means to never give up and do what’s right.”
Joining Parker were multiple state and local representatives including Rep. Nicole Collier and Beto O’Rourke, who’s running for governor.
“[Lee] has worked tirelessly to ensure that our voices are heard,” Collier said. “She took her fight to Washington and made sure we got recogni…