At age 89—an age when most people would consider settling down—Opal Lee embarked on the biggest journey of her life.
In 2016, determined to elevate Juneteenth into a national holiday, Lee decided to walk 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. armed with 1.6 million signatures. With the support of fellow Juneteenth activists, she reached her goal in about four months.
“I felt like if a little old lady in tennis shoes was making her way to Washington, D.C,” Lee, now 95, told Know Your Value.
Her efforts eventually paid off. President Joe Biden signed the federal holiday into law in June of this year. He called Lee an “incredible woman.”
The Bidens have remained awed by Lee. On Tuesday, The Biden Institute honored her with their 2021 Woman of Power and Purpose award, presented by Valerie Biden, the president’s sister, at the University of Delaware.
“Opal is the epitome of power and purpose,” Valerie Biden told Know Your Value. “This woman has the backbone of steel...she has a vision, and she is hopeful.”
Valerie Biden continued: “If she doesn’t prove that success can happen at any age, I don’t know who does.”
Juneteenth is the celebration of June 19th, 1865, when slaves learned the news of their freedom. The date marked two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
Lee remembers celebrating Juneteenth as a child. She and her two brothers attended cookouts on the fairgrounds in Marshall, Texas, where they grew up.
“There would be music and food, and speeches and food, and there would be games and food,” said Lee, who was also honored on Know Your Value and Forbes 50 over 50 "Impact List." “We had a festival that was out of this world.”
On Juneteenth of 1939, however, an unspeakable tragedy marked Lee’s family forever. When she was only 12, a mob of about 500 white rioters set fire to the family’s house, destroying the structure and the furniture. Local police officers warned her father not to shoot the attackers, or they would let the whole mob at him.
After managing to get out alive, her family bought a new house and didn’t bring up the incident ever again.
“My parents never, ever spoke to us about it,” Lee said. “But I guess I did learn from my mother. We learned persistence. If you start something, you finish it come hell or highwater.”
Over the years, Lee graduated college, had four kids and worked as an educator and activist. But Juneteenth became something of an “obsession,” she said.
“I just never felt like I was doing enough,” Lee said. “We celebrate the 4th of July, but weren’t free on the 4th of July in 1776. I want everybody to be aware that freedom is for everybody, not just for a few. And I’ll be stressing that as long as I got a little breath in me.”
At age 89, she decided to walk two-and-a-half miles a day in remembrance of the years between Juneteenth and the Emancipation Proclamation. She wound up walking many more, she said, hitting up Juneteenth celebrations from Denver to the Carolinas.
“I’d only go where I was invited, and where there were Juneteenth festivals that were being observed, so I walked two-and-a-half miles in the morning, two-and-a-half in the afternoon, wherever I was asked.”
When asked if she got exhausted, she said: “It was no big deal.”
She continued: “I met so many wonderful people and they would walk with me. I didn't have to walk by myself. It turned out to be fine. If it’s necessary I’d do it again.”
So what’s next for Lee?
Lee has begun a 100-city tour with Dr. Belay Riddick, a Civil Rights activist who was previously incarcerated. Together, the pair is speaking to various audiences about issues in inequality, including mass incarceration and inmate rights.. She is also promoting her children's book "Juneteenth: A Children's Story," which she published in 2019.
She said she would continue fighting for causes she believes in, including joblessness, homelessness, prisons and many other inequality issues. But first, she wants Black history to be taught properly in schools. Without proper schooling and awareness, Americans are doomed to repeat history.
"We're gonna start with education and go to the school board," said Lee. "We must do something about education and making people being aware of what happened so that it doesn't happen again."