What to Know About Opal Lee, the 'Grandmother of Juneteenth' Who Helped Make Holiday a Reality

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Drew Angerer/Getty Opal Lee and President Joe Biden

When President Joe Biden officially made Juneteenth a federal holiday on Thursday, there was one person in the audience for whom the moment was the culmination of a lifelong effort: 94-year-old Opal Lee, or as some call her, the "Grandmother of Juneteenth."

Lee, who's from Fort Worth, Texas, sat in the front row as Biden, 78, signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. She also received a standing ovation from the crowd at the behest of the president, who called her an "incredible woman."

"I've got so many different feelings all gurgling up in here," Lee told CBS affiliate KTVT. "I don't know what to call them all. I am so delighted to know that suddenly we've got a Juneteenth. It's not a Texas thing or a Black thing. It's an American thing."

The moment was a lifetime in the making for Lee, a dedicated activist who has spent decades working to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Opal Lee, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden

The cause is exceptionally personal for Lee, whose home was set on fire by white rioters on Juneteenth in 1939.

"People gathered. The papers say that it was 500 strong, and that the police couldn't control them," she recently told Variety. "My dad came home with a gun, and the police told him if he busted a cap, they'd let that mob have him."

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"If they had given us an opportunity to stay there and be their neighbors, they would have found out we didn't want any more than what they had - a decent place to stay, jobs that paid, [to be] able to go to school in the neighborhood, even if it was a segregated school," she continued. "We would have made good neighbors, but they didn't give us an opportunity. And I felt like everybody needs an opportunity."

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Opal Lee and Joe Biden


As she explained to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the incident inspired her activism, pushing her to "make people understand that Juneteenth is not a festival."

"It should be a unifier," she told the newspaper. "The slaves didn't free themselves. It took all kinds of people - Quakers, abolitionists - to get the slaves free."

RELATED: Joe Biden Signs Bill Officially Making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday: 'an Important Day'

A retired educator, Lee makes a symbolic two-and-a-half mile walk each year on Juneteenth, a distance that honors the two-and-a-half years it took for news of freedom to reach all enslaved people in the United States.

In 2016, she trekked 1,400 miles to Washington, D.C. to plead her case for officially recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday before the Obama administration and Congress, stopping along the way to complete two-and-a-half mile walks in various cities, according to Variety.

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"I just remember thinking, 'Gee, I'm 89 years old and I think that there's lots more that needs to be done,' " she told the outlet. "I gathered some people at my church… and we had a little ceremony. I walked from the church, two and a half miles, went home, and the next day I started where I left off."

Lee's dream was finally realized on Thursday - something Biden said was among his "greatest honors."

"I have to say to you, I have only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president - not because I did it, you did it, Democrats and Republicans," the president said. "It's an enormous, enormous honor."