On June 19, 1939, a 12-year-old girl experienced the loss of the home her family moved into four days earlier. A mob of 500 people who didn’t want her kind there destroyed the home, and it was burnt to the ground. Fourteen law enforcement vehicles were at the scene that evening but they did nothing to prevent the property damage and destruction.
Seventy-four years to the day before, Major General Granger had ridden in to Galveston, Texas and made the announcement that President Lincoln, who had since died, had set the slaves in all the confederate states free. The news arrived two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect! Celebrations have been held on June 19th, also known as “Juneteenth” since.
Seventy-eight years after the fiery loss of her family’s home, the 90-year-old woman, Opal Lee, went on a walking campaign to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Obama and to urge US Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national day of observance.
Texas, appropriately, had been the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth in 1980. Today, 47 out of the 50 states recognize it as a state holiday or day of observance. Only Hawaii and the Dakotas do not observe this Cel-Liberation, as some call it. It is also known as Freedom day or Jubilee day.
Opal Lee sees Juneteenth as a celebration for all, not just for the descendants of those who were freed to celebrate the Emancipation. “The slaves didn’t free themselves. It took all kinds of people — Quakers, abolitionists — to get the slaves free,” she says.
I think this celebration of the last people to hear of the freedom of the slaves in the confederacy is an important bit of history. And I can’t help but admire the indomitable spirit of this retired teacher who promotes the remembrance of it.
If you want to learn more about Mrs. Opal Lee or about Juneteenth, you can watch an oral history interview here. I encourage you to do it. Her story is a fascinating one.