I wrote a book about the grandmother of Juneteenth. Here are five lessons I learned.

At age 95, Fort Worth civic leader Opal Lee is a vision of dignity. Her hair is a silver crown. And when she speaks about life in Texas or the meaning of Juneteenth, wisdom and knowledge flow like a steady stream.

From 2016 to 2021, Lee traveled to Washington many times to encourage politicians to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She led annual walks along America’s highways, collecting almost 2 million signatures for her Juneteenth petition.

Dreams do come true. Last year, fueled with inspiration from Lee’s efforts, President Joe Biden signed a law making June 19 a federal holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved people in Texas, two years and six months after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment abolished Black servitude. However, Juneteenth is the glad touchstone that represents the end of slavery in the collective American heart.

After six years marching, Opal Lee, who was the 2021 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year, is a symbol of peace, goodwill and freedom. People around the globe call her the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”

In 2020, I was charged to write Lee’s picture book biography for children. We had a lively conversation in December of that year. When the interview ended, I understood why Juneteenth should matter to every American. Here are five lessons I learned from the Grandmother of Juneteenth.

Reflection

As it was for Texas families in 1866 at the first Juneteenth Jubilee of Galveston, one year after the glad news arrived, the day remains an occasion to remember the past and express gratitude for the tribulations survived. It is also a time to honor history-makers and ancestors whose courage paved a road to this present day.

For Mother Opal, that means remembering pioneers like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., but also influences like her own closer maternal grandfather, Zack Broadous, who gave her a love for books, history and the preservation of family ties.

Opal Lee: The Dallas Morning News 2021 Texan of the Year

Celebration

Mother Opal talked about the loud rejoicing that surely rang across Texas auction in 1865, after Black people had spent 200 years on the block. As the holiday inspires images of such overwhelming joy, she said, “Juneteenth is a day of music and praise.”

Juneteenth organizers are prone to invite marching bands or play an assortment of music from Beyoncé to Bobby Rush, and Willie Nelson. The quick-witted activist chuckled and said, “Twerking is for young people. I do the holy dance!”

Festing

There was one aspect of Juneteenth celebrations I didn’t want to overlook.

“Please tell me about the brisket and barbecue,” I insisted.

“Child,” Lee replied, “Juneteenth is a jamboree of feasting and fellowship.”

From the first Juneteenth celebration in Galveston until now, most Juneteenth hosts prepare vibrant red foods that Black Americans were during their servitude denied. In the early 20th century, Juneteenth guests feasted on tangy ribs, strawberry pie, and Big Red Soda bottled in Waco. But in recent years, with so many dietary options and Food TV, Juneteenth tables are also decked in vegan victuals, fancy tarts, and craft mocktails.

Wisdom

When questioned about her ability to form cohesive coalitions toward making Juneteenth a national holiday, Mother Opal said a wise elder gave her an example in building friendships beyond her neighborhood. That mentor was the late Lenora Rolla, a historian who founded the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society.

As we spoke about the impact of mentorships, Mother Opal said, “Juneteenth is a time for listening to the elders.”

Wherever she appears, Opal Lee welcomes children. She speaks with them and reads to them in schools, public libraries
and Juneteenth celebrations.

“If we want the world to survive, healthy and whole,” she said, “we must take time for children. Listen to them.”

Inclusion

As our interview wound down, I asked one last question: What should people understand about this holiday?

“No matter who you are, Juneteenth is an unifier that represents freedom,” she said.

These final words served as a lamp to guide my path. Immediately, I knew what I would write to children about Grandmother Opal and the new national holiday. Juneteenth is bigger than Texas, singing, or dancing bands. Juneteenth is freedom rising, and freedom is for everyone.

Alice Faye Duncan is the author of Opal Lee and What it Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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