On a bone-chilling Washington morning in 2009, Opal Lee of Fort Worth walked miles and stood hours in subfreezing temperatures to see an African-American sworn in as president.
Now 90, she’s home from her latest walk to the Capitol, a inspiring journey across the South that elevated her from local to national civil-rights icon.
Lee, a retired schoolteacher and counselor with a passion to make June 19 — “Juneteenth” — a federal holiday of freedom, completed a four-month tour leading walks more than 100 miles in cities from Texas to North Carolina, winning hearts and fans wherever she went.
“I’m home to recharge and start working on the next president,” Lee said Friday, back after a Wednesday news conference on Capitol Hill and 2-mile walk from the historic home of 19th-century civil-rights reformer Frederick Douglass.
“They tell me this new president [Donald J. Trump] is a tough nut to crack,” she said: “But I’m going to try.”
Lee’s connection with June 19, the day in 1865 when the U.S. Army assumed command in Texas after the Civil War and freed the last Southern slaves, is more than historical.
On June 19, 1939, when she was 12, a white mob burned and looted her family home on East Annie Street to drive them out of a mostly white neighborhood. Fourteen city, county and state police units were at the scene, but officers took no action.
A few reporters mentioned that but didn’t dwell on it in more than 20 TV and print reports about her latest walk, including an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered.
I’ve got to go back. As if I don’t have enough to do.
Opal Lee, 90, of Fort Worth
(Her most common sound bite: “I just thought if a little old lady in tennis shoes was out there walking, somebody would take notice.”)
Lee was surprised to find little about Juneteenth in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was the day all Americans were finally free but rated only a couple of passing mentions.
“I’ve got to go back and talk to them,” Lee said.
“I’ve got to go back. As if I don’t have enough to do.”
At the press event with U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, covered by Washington TV, Lee said she sees “no reason why [Juneteenth] shouldn’t be a national holiday.”
On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger ordered “all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality.”
Home on Friday, she talked about Douglass’ house — “Can you believe? Eight bedrooms!” — and about the next steps she’ll take for Juneteenth.
“It’s a unifier for America,” she said.
“Slaves didn’t free themselves. We need to honor all those people who were responsible. … As old as I am, as long as I have breath, I’m going to keep that flame burning.”
To Lee, it’s the flame of freedom.