Tanzina Vega: Tomorrow is Juneteenth and awareness of the holiday has reached an all time high following weeks of protest for racial justice in the United States. Juneteenth commemorates the day when enslaved people in Texas learned about their emancipation, June 19th, 1865. That's a full two and a half years after president Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation.
Black Americans have long celebrated Juneteenth and though Texas recognized it as a state holiday in 1980, followed by dozens of other States, it has yet to become a national holiday. For years, Opal Lee has been working to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. The 93 year old is a social impact leader in Fort Worth, Texas and she joins me now. Opal, thank you for being with us on The Takeaway.
Opal: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: What does Juneteenth mean to you Opal?
Opal: It means so much and I hope I can express it. It means freedom. I don't know if you can understand a people who was subjugated so long that when they found out they were free, they began celebrating and we've been celebrating ever sense.
Tanzina: Opal, the significance of Juneteenth is deeply personal for you.
Tanzina: Tell me what happened to your family's home when you were 12 years old.
Opal: We moved to Fort Worth from Marshall, Texas in 1937. My parents worked hard and were able to pay down on a house at the corner of [unintelligible 00:01:45] New York street Fort Worth called the South Side. My mom had it fixed up so neat, but people began to gather, throw rocks and on the 19th day of June, the newspaper says 500 of them gathered and well, my dad wasn't there. He was at work.
When he came, he had a gun and the police told him if he burst it out, they let that mob have him. Well, they sent us through your bus, me and my two brothers to neighbors on Terrell avenue and they stayed, but eventually they had to leave because the mob burned the place, drag out the furniture and they had to leave. My parents never told us about it, never talked to us about it and they struggled some more and we bought another house on Terrell revenue.
I don't know what to tell you. I didn't have any-- What is the word epiphany? I simply knew as I grew up that there were things that needed to be done.
Tanzina: Opal, in talking about the work that you've done across the course of your lifetime, among the many things that you've done, you've also led a campaign to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. Tell me about what made you want to pursue that.
Opal: My family has always celebrated Juneteenth and when I learned that general Gordon Granger and black troops landed in Galveston and told people, in fact, he read what was called general order number three, to the people saying that slaves were free. He nailed that to the door, that order. He nailed it to the door of Reedy chapel, African Methodist, Episcopal church, and when the slaves came in for work and somebody read that to them they began celebrate. We've been celebrating ever since.
Now, celebrations are just not a festival for us. We have already in Fort Worth, had a flag raising. We've already had a breakfast of prayer. That's not to be confused with the prayer breakfast and we are about to have our caravan because of the virus we can't have a parade and we'd love a parade. We are going to lead downtown to Lancaster and all the way out to Will Rogers Auditorium.
That's a two and a half mile walk and I'll be walking and the cars will be behind me to symbolize that slaves didn't know we were free for two and a half years. The components with Juneteenth, the educational components, the art, the music, the empower you, all these things are part of Juneteenth, because when slaves got free, when they were free, they had 12 freedoms that they had gained.
They gained the ability to name themselves, to have that children not taken away from them, to buy land, to educate themselves. There were so many more things that they gained and still this day in time, we've not gaining those freedoms. I keep thinking we've made strides and we say, there's so much more that needs to be done. I see Juneteenth as a unifier.
I even advocate that we do Juneteenth from the 19th to the fourth of July. Slaves weren't free on the fourth of July. We have so more-- We'd have so many more opportunities to make people aware.
Tanzina: There are a couple of observations I'd love to hear from you. When you see what's happening with the racial justice uprising right now with people protesting now three weeks straight in the United States across the country, what are your observations of that? How does that make you feel?
Opal: That I would wish I was young enough to get protests. I'd be afraid I'd give those kids something as old as I am so I stay home. I can understand enough is enough and the only way we know how to get attention is to protest. I don't condone the looting and the killing and that sort of thing but we've got to sit down with people and discuss what's happening and alleviate the situation.
Our educational system needs, oh, so much work. The job disparities, the homelessness, the health, there's so much that could be done if we would just work together. The fact that the color of my skin is the reason you don't work with me is so-- It's just plain ignorance.
Tanzina: Opal, is that ignorance something that's a product of our education system here in the United States, because your family has celebrated Juneteenth. You have led a national movement to bring awareness, but also make Juneteenth a federal holiday and yet people are just learning about Juneteenth. What does that say to you when you look at the education that folks in this country have, or don't have when it comes to the legacy of slavery and the history of slavery of black people in this country.
Opal: It's not taught in the schools. What they do have is a shame. Pictures of people picking cotton and having the impression that they liked doing this. I've picked cotton and I know it's not something that you'd proud to do. My thing is our education system needs to be better, but we can't bring the education system all together because people learn this at home. They learn to dislike, they learn to hate, they don't get it all from the school system.
Tanzina: Opal, what would you like to see the Juneteenth holiday evolve into here in the United States? How do you think this holiday should be celebrated?
Opal: I enjoy the celebrations that we have. I'm just wanting more people to know why we celebrate and to join us. The protests-- Listen, those are not all black people up there protesting. These are people of all nationalities and why can't we get our system regulated to address the atrocities that are happening to all people. To us it's more visible, but to Mexican Americans and Asian Americans and all people who were suffering, I'm so unhappy about what's happening to the immigrants and the children taken from their parents.
I don't know what I would do if somebody took my children for me. Thank God they're in their 70s. We are wanting people to understand that Juneteenth is a unifier. Let's get together and address these atrocities. Let's get together and tweak our educational system. Let's get together and fund decent jobs so people can have a decent home. Let's say eradicate homelessness. I think I'm preaching.
Tanzina: Nothing wrong with preaching Opal. We appreciate it. Opal Lee is a social impact leader based in Fort worth Texas who's been working to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday for years. Opal, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and to sharing your years of experience and wisdom with us. Thank you.
Opal: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: That's it for us today. Thanks so much for listening. We have to give a quick shout out to The Takeaway team that works to make this show as good as it is every week. Our board operator Debbie Daughtry was in the studio at WNYC for us alongside director and sound designer, Jay Cowit. Alexandra Botti is our senior producer.
Our producers are Jacklyn Martin, Ethan Oberman, José Olivares, Meg Dalton, Jason Tereski, Lydia McMullan-Laird and Dina Syed Ahmed. Polly Irungu is our digital editor. Katarina Barton is our intern and David Gable is our administrative assistant. Lee Hill is our executive producer.
Our love and thoughts to the family of singer Vera Lynn, who was a star of the World War II era and passed away this week at age 103. It's a good track to leave you with. Thanks so much for listening Amy Walters in tomorrow. I'll be back with you on Monday. I'm Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.