Opal Lee, 95, works to make the most of Juneteenth education

It’s the second year of marking Juneteenth as a federal holiday, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

And 95-year-old Opal Lee is here for it.

The Fort Worth, Texas, “Grandmother of Juneteenth” should know. She spent years working to get the day recognized as a national holiday, commemorating the day in 1865 that the last slaves were informed of the end of the Civil War, when Union soldiers delivered the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to 250,000 newly freed slaves in Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after it was issued.

She stood beside President Biden when he signed the bill into law last year.

Now that the holiday is official, it is an opportunity to educate and heal, Lee told USA Today in an interview published Sunday. It is also a springboard for seeking solutions to socioeconomic and other disparities affecting the Black community, she said.

“None of us are free until we’re all free,” Lee told USA Today. “Which means we have to keep working at getting rid of the disparities that are in our nation…. We need help.”

To celebrate this year, she did just that, leading hundreds of people in a 2.5-mile walk through her hometown, Fort Worth, to mark the time it took for the freedom news to reach Galveston.

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Lee grew up amid major Juneteenth celebrations akin to Christmas, with music, speeches, games, food and other revelry, USA Today reported. The day is also interspersed with spiritual introspection and healing work.

When Lee was 12, her family’s home in Fort Worth was trashed by a crazed white mob. Newspaper reports from that day – Juneteenth 1939 – said the mob smashed windows and furniture. Lee told USA Today that they completely torched the house. Her family escaped, but her parents never talked about that day again.

“We need to know so people can heal from it and never let it happen again,” Lee told AP after leading the walk.

Plans are under way for a 50,000-square-foot National Juneteenth Museum to be built in Fort Worth. It will include exhibits, discussions and events around the path to freedom for ex-slaves after the Civil War. Scheduled to break ground next year, it is slated to open to the public on June 19, 2025, according to the Fort Worth Business Press.

The need for education is clear, given a Gallup Poll that found 59% of Americans considered themselves familiar with Juneteenth, up from a year ago when it was 37%. Support for making it part of school history lessons has risen from 49% to 63%. But it has yet to be recognized as an official holiday at the state level in Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere.

“We want to harness that and use this moment as a tool to educate people about history,” Ramon Manning, chairman of the board for the Emancipation Park Conservancy in Houston, told AP. “Not just African American history, but American history.”

With News Wire Services

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