The next chapter in Opal Lee’s history includes a “symbolic” 1,400-mile walk to Washington, D.C., an online petition to the White House and a grassroots social media campaign that presses the public to understand the importance of Juneteenth.
Lee, a civil-rights activist, hopes to get much of this done quickly — ideally before she turns 90 on Oct. 7.
“I’m hoping young people will see that it goes viral,” she said of her Opal’s Walk campaign, which kicked off with a rally Thursday at Baker Chapel AME Church in Fort Worth.
Lee, a retired schoolteacher who normally walks a mile a day in about 25 minutes, says she will walk 10 miles a day (5 each in the morning and evening) to draw support for her petition calling for Juneteenth to be designated a national day of observance. She has until Sept. 27 to collect 100,000 signatures to get a response from the White House. Eighteen people had signed it as of Wednesday afternoon.
Dione Sims, president of Unity Unlimited, a nonprofit group that works to build diversity, said the significance of Juneteenth transcends the African-American community. Lee, she said, is “about education and making sure young folks don’t forget.”
Opal’s Walk will include stops at rallies and will promote urban farming as a way to help people in poverty. The route is still in the works and will be posted online with updates of Lee’s progress. She hopes to get to Washington before the end of President Barack Obama’s term the third week of January.
“I’ve done the calculations and it’s about 1400 miles,” Lee says on her webpage. “If I can do ten miles a day it will take 21 plus weeks to get to the White House if the Lord says the same and the creeks don’t rise.”
Sims said the first stop is for a rally Tuesday at the University of Texas at Arlington. Other stops include Paul Quinn College in Dallas and Wiley College in Marshall; the latter is Lee’s alma mater. The trek will also include stops in Texarkana, where Lee originates, and Little Rock. Along the way, she will rest either at her home, with friends or at hotels and then pick up the pace where she last left off, she said.
Lee aims to get lawmakers to move forward on commemorating Juneteenth. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, for example, has pushed efforts to recognize a Juneteenth Independence Day. The Senate passed a resolution in June, but Juneteenth advocates want a more permanent commemoration similar to a proposal that former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison supported in 2012.
Cornyn said in a statement in June: “Ending slavery was a critical first step towards equality for all, and our nation continues to progress toward that goal enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. On Juneteenth Independence Day, we pause to consider how far our nation has come and how far we still have to go.”
‘You are free when you hear the first shot’
Every June 19 in Texas, communities celebrate Juneteenth with family gatherings at parks and other public places.
Locally, Lee takes advantage of those gatherings to hand out historical packets that detail African-Americans in Texas. To understand Juneteenth, one must dig deep into history, Lee and experts say.
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to all slaves in territories still at war with the Union. While the order granted freedom to slaves immediately, said Max Krochmal, assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University, reality was a different matter. For one thing, slaves in Southern states knew the dangers that would likely befall them if they tried to leave on their own.
But Lincoln’s action created a grassroots movement, Krochmal said. When Union forces were approaching, many slaves heeded the message “You are free when you hear the first shot.”
“They would run away to other plantations or behind Union lines,” Krochmal said, adding that these freedom seekers helped change the Civil War.
When Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865, slaves in Texas didn’t get word.
“The news takes a long time to travel,” Krochmal said.
Two months later, a Union officer arrived with General Order No. 3, which details slaves’ freedom and establishes the importance of Juneteenth among African-Americans nationwide.
“Even though you were free, you still had to sleep in the master’s quarters,” Sims said.
Knowing racism firsthand
Juneteenth’s impact has been documented in oral histories collected as part of the Civil Rights in Black and Brown Oral History Project at TCU. Lee’s pilgrimage to Washington to gain support for a commemorative national day is another chapter in the history.
“We have not come to grips with the legacy of slavery in America,” Krochmal said. “We need to if we are going to get to the bottom of some of the issues that continue to divide our communities.”
Lee’s walk comes as the nation continues to grapple with racism — from the presidential campaigns to policing to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. On Wednesday, Lee said that she didn’t know about the football player but that his actions reminded her of the 1968 Olympics, when American medalists lifted their arms in protest. She said such protests show that racism continues. “We still haven’t arrived,” she said.
Lee knows racism firsthand. On Juneteenth 1939, when she was 13, an angry mob threatened her family and destroyed their home in south Fort Worth. That mob was protesting African-Americans moving into a white residential area, she said.
“I have met some beautiful people, but then I’ve met some hateful people … 500 of them at a time,” Lee said.
The real estate agent who sold Lee’s family the house alerted her father about the mob, Lee said. When her father came back with a rifle, police warned him that if he fired a shot, “we will let the mob have you.”
It’s preventing similar events that keeps Lee pushing for greater understanding of Juneteenth.
“I’ve seen a lot in my 90 years, but I truly believe that if we don’t remember what we have been through, our nation is doomed to repeat it,” Lee says on her web page.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.