Opal Lee, known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," reads to students at the Excel Academy Public School for Girls in southeast D.C. on Dec. 7. (Marckell Williams/The Washington Informer)
Opal Lee, known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," reads to students at the Excel Academy Public School for Girls in southeast D.C. on Dec. 7. (Marckell Williams/The Washington Informer)

Juneteenth, a holiday long celebrated in Black communities across the country, became a federal holiday last year after Opal Lee and several others wrote elected officials, collected more than a million signatures, and planned a 1,400-mile walk from Fort Worth, Texas, to the nation’s capital.  

Lee recently returned to the District to teach a group of young people at Excel Academy Public School for Girls about Juneteenth. During her visit on Wednesday, she read from a Juneetenth children’s book and expressed her desire for, what she described as, true freedom. 

Even with Juneteenth’s newfound prominence, Lee stressed that the United States has yet to fully realize the principles outlined in its founding documents. She said all hands must be on deck to fulfill that goal. 

“Freedom, real freedom, is everyone’s responsibility. We have too many homeless people and too many people who don’t have jobs and healthcare,” said Lee, 93. 

“I’ll keep talking and walking and hoping that people will understand. We must be vigilant. We can’t get complacent and let another person come into the presidency who is bound on having a dictatorship.” 

On June 17, 2021, Lee counted among several people who surrounded President Joe Biden (D) as he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Holiday Act into law. Days later, federal government offices closed and people across the nation enjoyed their day off on what has long been a commemoration of freedom for African Americans in Texas. 

On June 19, 1865, 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas and told more than 250,000 enslaved Africans that they had been freed. 

Years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation secured freedom for enslaved Africans in states under Union control. As a Confederate stronghold in a remote area, Texas maintained chattel slavery for at least two more years. However, General Order No. 3, delivered by General Gordon Granger, abolished the institution. 

On June 19, 1866, Galveston, Texas hosted the first Juneteenth celebration, initially called Jubilee Day. In the decades to follow, Black people throughout Texas and other parts of the United States continued to commemorate Juneteenth with church services, parades and other celebratory gatherings. 

Lee’s memories of Juneteenth run the gamut, and include not only celebrations. One year during the late 1930s, a mob of white people in Fort Worth, Texas burned down Lee’s family home on Juneteenth. On Wednesday, she said that memory remained etched in her mind. 

For Excel Academy Principal Shaunte Daniel, the rawness of Lee’s experiences helped students make more sense of the Juneteenth holiday and other historical events. She said Lee’s visit accentuated the instruction and made it even more relatable to the young people. 

“We can make those connections to texts that students have read and [class]work they have done that aligns with what Ms. Lee has done,” Daniel said. 

“Our students are equipped with context from their city so they feel connected to activism. Our responsibility is to educate and empower students so they can believe in themselves.”

Since before its transition from public charter to public school, Excel Academy has attracted parents, teachers and community members committed to shaping the minds of elementary and middle school-aged girls. 

The goal, as explained by teachers and administrators in the past, centers on maintaining a level of rigor that prepares them for high school and beyond. 

Daniel said Lee’s visit represents a continuation of that work. On Wednesday, Daniel and a group of students greeted Lee in Excel Academy’s lobby and gave her flowers. They later escorted her throughout the building and listened as she dropped gems of knowledge.  

Kia Koerts, an eighth grader in her fourth year at Excel Academy, said she felt inspired by Lee. The budding influencer said she wants to live her life to the fullest and channel her leadership skills to affect change.  

“This visit encouraged me to work harder and use opportunities to excel and get what I want in life,” Kia said. 

“Ms. Lee taught me to keep going and pushing for what I want. She pushed to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Next Juneteenth, I plan to have fun with my friends, blow fireworks and have a good time.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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