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As Juneteenth recognition builds, activist returns to Galveston

John Wayne Ferguson | The Galveston Daily News | May 31, 2021


Opal Lee won’t be stopped.

At age 94, the Fort Worth-born activist warned supporters Monday it might take her longer than it used to to march to where she’s going. But she wasn’t going to let distance or age stop her.

For years, Lee has led an effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Juneteenth is the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It occurs on the anniversary of the arrival of Union soldiers to Galveston on June 19, 1865. The troops came with news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves in Texas.

Lee has become a national figure in the Juneteenth recognition movement, mostly gaining attention by organizing marches to bring attention to the issue. In 2016, she conducted a symbolic march from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., that gained widespread attention, and in 2019 she delivered to Congress a petition containing 1.5 million signatures in favor of a new holiday.

The effort so far hasn’t panned out. So Lee has marched on.

Lee and more than 50 supporters walked Monday from Menard Park on Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard to The Strand downtown, taking a winding 2.5-mile route that passed by some of the most important monuments to Black history.

The march ended at the corner of The Strand and 22nd Street, the site of a massive new mural titled “Absolute Equality,” which depicts the Union Army’s delivery of the news of emancipation and other events in history.

Lee lauded the mural, which is set to be dedicated in an official ceremony June 19, and said she saw it as part of the growth in awareness toward the holiday and what it represents.

“Things that are happening to us are making people aware,” Lee said. “It gives me hope that people are learning and listening.”

National recognition of Juneteenth has grown in recent years, and especially so in the past year following Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations that swept across the country.

More cities and states have begun to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, including the city of Galveston, which just last week declared June 19 a city holiday.

“It was long overdue for Galveston,” said Mayor Craig Brown, who marched with Lee on Monday. “It’s about recognition. It’s about equality and independence. We think of July Fourth as Independence Day but, in reality, the entire nation wasn’t independent until we had Juneteenth.”

The effort to get the federal government to recognize the holiday so far has failed.

Last July, a bill creating the federal holiday was blocked by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. Johnson complained about the potential cost of creating a new federal holiday and wanted the Senate to compromise by eliminating another federal holiday from the calendar.

There are currently 10 federal holidays. The last new federal holiday created was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which became a federal holiday in 1983.

Another bipartisan bill proposing the national holiday was introduced in Congress in February. That’s the one Lee is once again marching for, she said.

“He didn’t get on board without attempt to make it a holiday, so that died,” Lee said of Johnson. “And so we’re off and running again.”

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.


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