By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
The effort to make Juneteenth (June 19) a national holiday continues as more people hold Juneteenth celebrations nationwide and throughout Hampton Roads. On Friday, June 18th, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam serves as host of the Commonwealth’s official first Juneteenth commemoration at Fort Monroe with free food, free vaccines, and special guests. Northam signed the bill making Juneteenth a state holiday.
Opal Lee, age 95, a well-known Juneteenth organizer, feels so strongly about the issue that she walked thousands of miles in late February 2020 from Fort Worth to the nation’s capital to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that would transform the June 19 celebration into a national holiday.
“I am ready to do whatever it takes,” Lee told CNN at the time. “We need all the signatures we can get so that Congress doesn’t feel like this old lady in tennis shoes and her little organization are the only ones wanting Juneteenth to be a national holiday,” she said.
Lee is known statewide in Texas as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” The former educator runs a five-acre urban farm and food bank that serves more than 40 food deserts in Tarrant County.
“It’s not a Black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s just the right thing,” Lee said, at age 89, when she launched her first trip from Fort Worth to the nation’s capital about a month before her 90th birthday, Sept. 1, 2016 to be exact, she began the walk, according to Blavity News.
“I decided that surely there was something I could do to bring attention to the fact that we needed Juneteenth as a national holiday,” Lee said. “So I decided, if a little old lady in tennis shoes was walking toward Washington, D.C., somebody would take notice.”
This year, after Lee walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., Senate and House lawmakers reintroduced the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Lee, who has survived cataract surgery, returned home to Fort Worth and launched a petition on Change.org., which already has about 1.5 million signatures.
Juneteenth began as a Texas holiday in 1980, is now recognized by 47 states and the District of Columbia as a state holiday, and celebrated its 156th anniversary this year.
Black men. who minutes before had been slaves, threw their hats high in the air, and women danced at the first Juneteenth celebration.
“Juneteenth is about reclaiming our history, rejoicing in the progress we’ve made, and recommitting to the work yet undone,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said in a press release when the measure was re-introduced in June 2020. “Our nation still has a long way to go to reckon with and overcome the dark legacy of slavery and the violence and injustice that has persisted after its end.”
The bill was proposed by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Booker, Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is a cosponsor.