Lee is a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist who fought for years to have Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday, and succeeded in 2021.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 21, 2022. It has since been updated.
Juneteenth marked the end of slavery in America and has since been celebrated as the day of emancipation by the African-American community. Civil rights activist Opal Lee, known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," has a message for those celebrating the special day: help someone else. Lee, a former schoolteacher who has spent much of her life serving the community, was the face of the campaign that got Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. She is also a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist. Lee and her granddaughter, Dione Sims, the founding executive director of the National Juneteenth Museum, spoke to TODAY about the day of emancipation. When Lee was asked what people should do on Juneteenth, she replied, "I think they should spend this special day helping somebody else. I find that when I help somebody else, all my problems seem to disappear. I don’t want you to think that they go into thin air, but when I’m helping somebody else, I get help for myself, too."
During her teaching years, Lee organized to ensure her students had all of their necessities, including shoes, clothes and food. After retiring, she is leading a Community Food Bank which serves more than 600 members of the community to access food, household supplies, and pet food. Juneteenth has been an issue very close to Lee's heart. She walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., at the age of 89 to bring awareness to the holiday and its significance. “Over the course of decades, she’s made it her mission to see that this day came,” said President Biden. “It was almost a singular mission. She’s walked miles and miles, literally and figuratively, to bring attention to Juneteenth.”
Juneteenth marked the end of slavery in America. After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, plantation owners in Texas refused to acknowledge the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. They continued to exploit the Black community, who remained unaware that they had been freed. Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) celebrates the day General Gordon Granger informed the Black community that the Civil War had ended and that they were all free. He arrived with Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas, to read out the proclamation, declaring that "all persons held as slaves within rebellious states are, and henceforward shall be free."
Sims is following in her grandmother's footsteps in serving the community and is learning what it takes. “I’ve learned from her that you give of yourself, sometimes maybe even to your own hurt, but it’s always in the betterment of somebody else," said Sims. Lee's dream would come true as President Joe Biden signed a bill that was unanimously passed by the Senate recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. “I’m telling you, I’ll probably do a holy dance. I just don’t know how to describe it. I just feel like it’s the beginning of something great, and I want to be a part of it," she reacted at the time. Opal Lee was present at the signing of the bill alongside Biden and Kamala Harris. "Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a greater morning to come," said Biden, reported NPR.
Kamala Harris, who is the first woman, Asian-American and the first Black person to serve as the vice president, spoke on the occasion in 2021. "Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and today, a national holiday," said Harris. "We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation," she said at the White House signing ceremony. "We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride. It's also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action."