Opal Lee isn’t giving up.
“I can’t guarantee I’m kicking high, but I’m kicking,” she said over a Zoom call from her living room in Fort Worth, Texas, just ahead of Juneteenth.
Friday marks the most widespread recognition to date for Juneteenth — the day the last of the American slaves were emancipated — two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but had little impact in Texas, which lacked the Union troops to enforce it. The summer arrival of Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 finally brought with it a confirmation that the last slaves were finally free.
Lee, a 93-year old former educator and children’s book author, has been pushing for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday for years. In 2017, she embarked on a months-long journey that brought her to Washington, D.C., in an effort to make it happen.
When Lee, a mother of four, as well as a grandmother and great grandmother, retired as a guidance counselor from the Fort Worth Independent School District in 1977, she had more time to advocate for her causes: homelessness, education, health care and jobs. She also works on an urban farm that supports the local food bank. This week, she picked a turnip so big, she ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days, she said.
On Thursday, Lee wore black framed glasses and sported a crisp white shirt and black pants.
When asked if she ever has time to rest, she said she looks forward to reading at night. Her recommendations for readers? Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2019 novel, “The Water Dancer” and the movie, “Harriet.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Soo Youn: Every few minutes it seems I get another notification that another government entity or company is acknowledging Juneteenth. I just got an email from Chase a few minutes ago saying they were closing early on Friday. New York State will recognize it. It’s a holiday at The Washington Post. Are you surprised at this? It’s been a long time coming, but what’s your reaction to this recognition?
Opal Lee: Oh listen, I’m ecstatic. I could do a whole new dance. It’s just so grand that they’re coming on board because it’s been a long, long time. A long struggle to get people to understand what we’re talking about.
I think Juneteenth is a unifier. I keep telling people, do you see those protesters? They’re not all black, they’re not all white, they’re not all brown. They’re together. Why can’t we do this?
SY: You’ve lived through so many moments in this country’s history where you must have thought: Change is coming. Does this moment feel like things will be different?
OL: I think we have momentum. I positively don’t plan for it to be like other times. We have a catastrophe and then we sit down and go back to business as usual. Then we have another shooting or hanging and something that brings us to our knees. This one’s not going to be like that. We are going to see that we come together, come hell or high water. We’re just not going to let it go down in history that it’s the same cotton-picking thing.
SY: You’re a black woman in her 90s. When we talk about recent cultural changes, like #MeToo, the conversation tends to be about white women. When we talk about racism and violence, the conversation tends to be about black men. Many say black women tend to get ignored. Do you agree with that? Why? And what can we do to change it?
OL: Because we’ve always been the nurturers. We’re the ones that looked after everyone’s family. The white folk’s family, our family, anybody else’s family. We are nurturers. So we’re always in the background.
Mind you, I belonged to a group, Federated Women. They’ve been in the forefront with suffragists, they have been walking and protesting for years and years. They were regulated to the back.
But we are still people who understand. And we are people who are going to push, whether we push loud or silently. We’re going to get some things done. I’m delighted that it’s all kinds of women who are stepping up and saying the things that are happening are wrong. I will continue to talk about the fact that our education system needs something done to it, that we need to do something about our health care. People are going to have to make a decent living so they won’t have to work two or three jobs.
So Juneteenth in my estimation is a unifier. Juneteenth is that catalyst to get us to the table.
SY: We’re at a moment where some people are protesting for the first time, getting into activism for the first time. You’ve been doing this for decades. How do you keep going?
OL: Youngsters must push through, but they’ve got to have patience. Because things aren’t done in a sound bite. It’ll take people understanding. You’ve got to love your neighbor. And you can start by helping them. You know the woman in the lot where you live that’s having a hard time raising her kids? Take her a box of groceries. Keep the kids while she goes to work or something. There are people our age who can do so much for the younger generation. I’m not a sitting grandmother. I’ve got acres of grandchildren. About 27 of them. And great grandchildren. But we can help if we just let our neighbors know we love them.
You see a black man in a hoodie and you clutch your purse because you think he’s going to take it — those things still exist. It’s in people’s DNA. I used to think that when the people my age died out, when that generation died out, that things would be different, that the children would know better. It isn’t taught in the schools. The parents sure aren’t teaching them. Where’s everyone going to get it? We need to make some changes.
SY: What are the first steps to move forward?
OL: I think the powers that be should sit down with the protesters and listen to them. I’m telling you the problems are education, jobs, opportunities, health, a place to stay, all of these things need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed now.
SY: You’re a role model for so many. Who are your role models?
OL: I’m just an old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody’s business, but I like it.
SY: Can you tell me about the farm?
OL: Oh, I thought you’d never ask. I’m responsible for a food bank that services some 500 families a day. And the people standing in the line, I polled them and 66 of them said they were interested in farming. So I asked and the water district gave us 13 acres of land to use.
I’ve got the best farm manager you ever want to look at. So we have chosen those 66 people — some of them had been incarcerated — we paid them a living wage so they could get a place to stay in, they’re no longer homeless, and they could feed their families.
Girl, we are growing some produce. We don’t use fertilizer. We are organic farmers. And it’s walking distance from my house. Right now we’re getting produce to the market. Right now we’ve got potatoes, carrots, purple hull peas, cantaloupes, watermelons. The prettiest tomatoes you’d ever want to see. All I do is brush them off on my pants and start eating.
SY: How are you going to spend tomorrow?
OL: I thought you’d never ask. We’ve got a caravan going. We can’t have a parade like we usually have. It’s 2.5 miles and I’ll be the leading the caravan. I’ll be walking that 2.5 miles to symbolize that slaves didn’t know they were free for 2.5 years.
SY: You think about owners not telling their slaves for as long as they could, to squeeze that last bit of free labor out of them …
OL: You still think about people who will work a person to death and pay them barely any money. That’s still going on. We still have so many disparities. People who would take you on, and work you all day and when the day is over, they don’t have the money to pay you. You might get a little something. It’s still going on. And people don’t think that slavery is still going on but we have slavery in these United States. Sex slaves. People bring people from other countries, take their passports and keep them working as slaves and won’t let them come out. Have you not heard of these things?
SY: Yes, I have.
OL: Okay, so we’ve got things we’ve got to do. We’ve got to address these atrocities. We don’t have time for looting and burning and protesting. I love the kids for getting out and making people aware, but we’ve got a job to do. I hope things will change. We’ve had some gains, but not enough to be shouting about.
We’ve still got a long way to go.