FORT WORTH, Texas – Opal Lee’s dream of seeing Juneteenth become a federal holiday finally came true over the summer, but the energetic woman who has spent years rallying people to join her on Memorial Day the end of slavery hardly gives up a life of work in teaching and helping others.
Lee, who celebrated his 95th birthday on Thursday, has spent decades making a difference in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. She then saw her legacy in recent years extend far beyond the city as she strived for national recognition for Juneteenth, and stood alongside President Joe Biden as he enacted the bill making June 19 a federal holiday commemorating when Union soldiers brought the news. of freedom to enslaved blacks in Galveston, Texas, after the Civil War.
“We don’t want people to think Juneteenth is a stopping point because it isn’t,” Lee, who has worked as a teacher for more than two decades, told The Associated Press. and counselor in the Fort Worth School District. “This is a start, and we will address some of the disparities that we know exist.”
His recent work in Fort Worth has included creating a large community garden that produced 7,700 pounds of fruit and vegetables last year, delivering food to people who cannot leave their homes, and transforming a former Ku Klux Klan auditorium in museum. and arts center.
As for Juneteenth, she would like the festivities to extend through July 4 – and incorporate events to provide resources to help people with financial, health and other challenges.
Lee was born in 1926 in Marshall, nestled in the Piney Woods of eastern Texas, near the border with Louisiana. Her family then moved to Fort Worth when her father worked there for the railroad, but her memories of June date back to her celebrations in Marshall as a young girl.
“They would have music and food. They would have games and food. They would have all kinds of entertainment and food. It was like another Christmas, ”Lee said.
His memories of Juneteenth also include a heartbreaking attack on his family that day in 1939, when a white mob of hundreds descended on their Fort Worth home days after the Black family moved to a white neighborhood. She, her parents, and two brothers all managed to escape, but her parents never spoke of the day again. The crowd smashed windows and furniture, according to newspaper reports of the time.
“We would have been good neighbors, but they didn’t give us a chance to let them know how good we could have been,” Lee said.
Lee’s childhood was spent in the shadow of widespread white-against-black violence in the United States. In 1921, a white mob raged in Tulsa, Oklahoma, torching more than 1,000 homes and destroying a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street. Two years earlier, hundreds of blacks had been beaten, hanged, shot and burned to death by white mobs in the United States during what is known as “the red summer”.
Lee is one of many who have pushed for a June 17 national holiday over the years.
Her granddaughter, Dione Sims, said it was in 2016 that Lee decided the effort was taking too long. “She said, ‘It just needs a little bit of attention,'” Sims said.
Thinking that “someone would notice a little old lady in tennis shoes,” Lee planned to walk from Fort Worth to Washington, DC. It turned into Lee taking city walks before heading to the nation’s capital. She then organized other marches, met with politicians and collected signatures. His efforts have been recognized by celebrities including Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lupita Nyong’o and Usher.
“You have to have people who are dedicated to making it happen, and she was definitely dedicated to that and to making it happen,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, professor at Harvard University and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. whose book “On Juneteenth” was published this year.
Educating young people remains a priority for Lee, who earned a master’s degree in education from the present-day University of North Texas at Denton. She wants to make sure that student textbooks tell the full story of racial injustices in the United States so that “we can heal it and not let it happen again.”
Recently, what schools teach about race and racism has become a political lightning rod, with some Republican-led states, including Texas, banning or restricting the teaching of certain concepts.
“I am adamant that the schools were really telling the truth,” said Lee, who has written a children’s book called “Juneteenth” which helps teach the history of slavery.
In one of his more recent projects, Lee is a founding member of a coalition called Transform 1012 N. Main Street, which is working to transform this Fort Worth building – a former KKK auditorium – into the Fred Rouse Center and Museum for Arts and Community. Healing, named after a black lynched in 1921.
“Let’s make it so that people can come and see this reconciliation and all kinds of things that need to be done,” Lee said.
Adam W. McKinney and Daniel Banks, co-founders of the arts and service organization DNAWORKS, brought together local activists for the project. McKinney said Lee has a way of leading that invites others to join us.
“I learn so much from her in each of our interactions,” McKinney said.
Brenda Sanders-Wise, executive director of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, a group of which Lee was a founding member, said Lee had a penchant for describing herself as “just a little old lady in tennis shoes who mingles with everyone’s business. “Sanders-Wise can think of a few other ways to describe her.
“She’s a lawyer, activist, leader, strategist and shrewd tactician, that’s what Opal Lee is to me,” said Sanders-Wise. “I call him an agent of change.”
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