At 93 and on foot, Opal Lee led a 2.5 mile caravan of cars through Fort Worth to symbolize the two and a half years it took for slaves in Texas to learn of their freedom granted in the Emancipation Proclamation. The Annual Juneteenth Celebration in Fort Worth is part of a larger movement to make the state's Juneteenth holiday a national holiday.
"It’s like Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and my birthday all rolled into one. It’s fabulous," Lee said, referring to Juneteenth. "All of these people who have been on this walk…surely, people, the legislature will notice the people signing the petition. We plan to send Congress one million signatures, so they know it’s not just one little old lady in tennis shoes walking around."
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For more than four decades Opal Lee has worked to grow the Juneteenth celebration from a community picnic into a national holiday. The day celebrates freedom for Black Americans, a day as important as the Fourth of July for all Americans.
On Friday, Lee walked 2.5 miles to symbolize the two and a half years it took for slaves in Texas to learn of their freedom granted in the Emancipation Proclamation. Behind her were a few dozen others on foot and a caravan of cars.
Daniel Davenport of Fort Worth participated for the first time.
"It’s bigger than black and white. Let’s just be honest," Davenport said. "For all of us to be equal, for all of us to be one true nation under God, we would all have to have that same freedom, that same social liberties, the same civil rights."
Others like Ginger Head Gearheart have known Lee for years.
"She’s one of the most amazing human beings, and I have met many many amazing people," Head Gearheart said. "I’ve been to Africa. I’ve been to all over the world, but Miss Lee is Miss Lee. That’s all I can say."
She spoke with NBC 5 earlier this month in anticipation of Friday's event and said she's been carefully preparing for the caravan amid the ongoing pandemic.
"I walk around my house. I've measured it, and I walk 10 times around my house and on the front porch, and it's better than a mile," she said. "And I do that every day, getting ready to do the walk."
Just four years ago, Lee started a walking campaign all across the nation to bring attention and awareness to the need for a national day of observance for Juneteenth.
"It doesn't just belong in Texas and it's not a Black thing. Nobody is free until we're all free. And, I've been advocating for the longest that we celebrate Juneteenth from the 19th of June to the Fourth of July. You know, slaves weren't free on the Fourth of July," Lee said.
"Her vision for Juneteenth has grown from a single day community picnic at Sycamore Park to a multi-day celebration in downtown Fort Worth that includes a parade, breakfast of prayer, honors banquet, Miss Juneteenth Pageant, Health & Job Fair, 5K Run, Art Exhibit, Golf Tournament, Gospel Festival, food vendors, children’s play area and much more," according to her biography on the Juneteenth Fort Worth website.
Lee is part of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, a national movement begun by the late Dr. Ronald Myers to have Juneteenth declared a national holiday.
Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday -- in 1979. There are currently 47 states that recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday.