Updated: Apr 5, 2021
Nick Powell | Houston Chronicle | Sep. 14, 2019
Leslie Plaza Johnson, Freelancer / Contributor
GALVESTON — On a breezy Saturday morning, a cluster of island residents and activists with their walking shoes on gathered around Opal Lee.
The 92-year-old Fort Worth resident hosts 2.5-mile walks in cities across the country to raise awareness for recognizing Juneteenth — June 19, 1865, the day slavery was officially abolished in Texas — as a national day of observance.
The self-described “little old lady in tennis shoes gettin’ in everyone’s business” has taken her campaign to more than a dozen cities, from Little Rock to Denver to Detroit, all pit stops on her road trip to visit all 46 states that recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday.
While in southeast Texas, Lee ventured to the Democratic presidential debate at Texas Southern University in Houston Thursday, where she cornered “those young folks” — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Andrew Yang — handing them packets of information about Juneteenth.
“Slaves didn’t free themselves, it took a whole lot of people, including abolitionists, John Brown, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, all of them, to help us get free,” Lee said. “And so we need to acknowledge that and let’s pull together to do the things that are necessary now to make the nation the place that it ought to be.”
The arrival of Lee’s Juneteenth campaign in Galveston is particularly poignant. It was here in this island port city, one of the largest cotton shipping ports in the world during the mid-19th century, that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with 1,800 Union troops on June 18th, 1865, carrying General Order No. 3, advising that all slaves had been declared free.
President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, but slaves in Texas remained enslaved until Granger Union Army arrived to enforce it.
The day before her Galveston walk, Lee sat for an interview in Reedy Chapel, Texas’ first African Methodist Episcopal Church, built for slaves in 1848. Looking up at the intricate gothic revival woodwork and the gleaming, celestial stained glass, Lee was moved to be sitting in the same pews as enslaved parishioners who may have prayed for their freedom without ever knowing they had already been given it.
“Waiting for the news from up high, whichever way it would come, wanting to be free and I just can’t imagine year after year after year, they didn’t get word that they were free,” Lee said. “And to learn that others knew about it for two and a half years, it’s mind-boggling.”
It was in the spirit of that tragic history that Lee’s walk for Juneteenth commenced on 27th Street and Seawall Boulevard, where segregationist Jim Crow laws once relegated African-American beachfront businesses to this same one-block area.
Wearing white pants and a white shirt with gray tennis shoes, Lee was flanked by two Galveston police officers, leading a march of at least 30 or so people — including several Galveston City Council members — on a 2.5-mile walk, a distance symbolizing the time lapse between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth.
One man carried a red and blue Juneteenth flag. Marchers sang “We Shall Overcome,” and held up signs reading “Go Miss Opal” and “Juneteenth … A National Holiday!”
The march stopped at several significant black historic landmarks, including the Old Central Cultural Center, formerly the first African-American high school in the state before schools were integrated in the late 1960s. The “Colored Branch of the Rosenberg Library,” remains etched into stone above a doorway to the cultural center.
Hank Thierry, a professor at University of Texas Medical Branch, was part of Lee’s procession. A history buff, Thierry noted that the exact wording of General Granger’s order defined what post-emancipation was supposed to look like: “absolute equality” for slaves and slaveholders.
“That’s why you see such a rich, robust history here in Galveston: the first African-American high school in the state of Texas, some of the first churches, the first AME church at Reedy (Chapel),” Thierry said. “A lot of that is a continuum of (Granger’s) message behind his general orders.”
Across the street from City Hall, a boy named Jordan Joseph enacted a scene pretending he was mayor of Galveston in the year 2039, celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday — the fruit of Lee’s labor. Afterwards, Craig Brown, the city’s mayor pro-tem, presented Lee with a key to the city.
“We celebrate July 4th as Independence Day here in the country, but for over 4 million people there was not independence and we need a holiday to celebrate independence for every American,” Brown said.
When the march reached 22nd and Strand, where a historic marker celebrates where Granger arrived with his troops on Juneteenth, a man dressed in Union soldier garb greeted Lee and read aloud General Order No. 3. The marchers erupted in applause and Lee danced a jig that would put most senior citizens to shame.
Sitting on a bench taking a well-deserved rest after two hours braving the island humidity, Lee urged all of the marchers to sign her petition calling for 100,000 signatures to get Congress’ attention to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She hoped that the occasion would be a vehicle to unify an increasingly polarized citizenry.
“We’ve got to do the healing,” Lee said. “Each one of you knows somebody who’s not in our camp. So talk to them.”