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“I’m counting on you to make a difference.” Fort Worth’s Opal Lee has been making a difference for decades

Juneteenth is getting more attention and is closer to being recognized as a federally holiday than ever. Here’s its history.

Rain in North Texas Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Juneteenth has been made a holiday by Vox Media, so today, on the 155th anniversary of Union army general Gordon Granger’s reading of federal orders in the city of Galveston, Texas proclaiming all slaves in Texas were now free, we will not be covering anything TCU Athletics related.

Instead, here is some of the history of this historic day from a Fort Worth perspective.

Texas was the last state to emancipate its slaves after the Civil War. Late in the 1800s, information transfer was a little slower, an it was a full two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and several months after Robert E. Lee’s full surrender. There are several stories told as to why it took so long for the news to reach the Lone Star State:

Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question. Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

Regardless of the reason, it was not until June 19th, 1865, that the last remaining American slaves were freed, and the reaction to General Granger’s Order Number 3, which said “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer” was of course jubilant. The following year, the day was commemorated with prayer, feasting, song, and dance, and this celebration soon became an annual event for people in the African American community. But, Juneteenth did not gain state recognition until January 1, 1980, when Legislator Al Edwards, of Houston’s 146th District, was able to pass H.B. 1016, which made the day a state holiday. Edwards served 30 years in the House of Representatives and died of natural causes just this past April.

Recently, there has been a renewed push to make Juneteenth a Federal holiday, with several big name businesses giving their employees the day off as a paid holiday. In addition to the aforementioned Vox Media, Nike, Spotify, Twitter, and Uber. Many other organizations are offering holiday pay or cancelling meetings and holding “reflection time” as part of their work to acknowledge the meaning of the day.

In Fort Worth, Juneteenth has a deeply rooted significance, and is almost synonymous with the name Opal Lee. Opal is truly a living legend; the 93 year old has been a Fort Worth resident since 1936 and was extraordinarily impactful as a teacher and counselor in Fort Worth ISD until she retired in 1977. When she left the classroom, though, she didn’t leave the work — Ms. Lee has spent the last 40+ years impacting her community through her work with Habitat for Humanity and her involvement with several organizations and committees.

Now, her greatest work is Opal’s Walk, a journey she began in 2016 — at the age of 90 — as part of her mission to get all 50 states to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday. With 47 states already on board, and many Fortune 500 companies following suit, it seems just a matter of time before her mission is accomplished.

On this Juneteenth, Opal will walk more than 2 miles from downtown to Will Rogers Coliseum leading a caravan. The day’s normal events have been impacted by COVID, but you can still register to be a part of the celebration.

(Details at opalswalk2dc.com and juneteenthftw.com.)

You can also read about Opal Lee’s history and mission in this outstanding piece by Bud Kennedy in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.