Essay: Opal Lee's Juneteenth movement won but my faith falters

Raj Mankad | Houston Chronicle | June 19, 2021


Opal Lee and Sam Collins at Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on May 30, 2021. Beatrice Mcbride


Ask Opal Lee to tell you about Juneteenth. Chances are, the 94-year-old leader of the movement to make the pivotal event a national holiday will not start with slavery. Or the Civil War. Or systemic racism. Or any of the pain, division or injustice that often accompany mention of that fateful date, when Union troops announced the end of slavery in Texas.


Chances are, she’ll start with dessert.


“You want some peach cobbler?” she told me in an interview on May 30, her eyes closing as she imagined each dish, counting them off her fingers. “Barbecue chicken, potato salad, black eyed peas, watermelon and anything you could name, we had some.”


She was recounting fond memories in the northeast Texas town of Marshall, where she grew up, back when Juneteenth was celebrated mainly by Black folks, in much the same way Americans of all stripes celebrate the Fourth of July — with music, baseball, sack races, and food, lots of food.


Lee does bring in the history of Juneteenth. She spoke to me after Sunday service at Reedy Chapel, one of the sites in Galveston where, on June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3, demanding “absolute equality” and the end of slavery. That the message came two months after the defeat of the Confederacy at Appomattox and two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation is what, for many, makes the event as bitter as it is sweet.


Just what the holiday means now, how it should be regarded, commemorated, and taught in schools, are subjects of debate today. But years before the murder of George Floyd prompted a long-overdue conversation on race, Opal Lee was leading her walks, 2.5 mile walks across cities all over America, to raise awareness about Juneteenth and the effort to give it national recognition.


That goal finally came to fruition last week when Congress approved a bill designating Juneteenth a federal holiday and President Biden signed it into law Thursday, with Lee by his side. One of the sponsors, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, credits Lee with inspiring him to join U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in advocating for the legislation and persuading all 99 of his Senate colleagues to vote in its favor.


Lee’s charisma and influence — how she wins over skeptics on both sides of the aisle — has long intrigued me. I decided to tag along on her walk through Galveston on Memorial Day of this year — as a journalist and as a human striving toward a deeper understanding of history.


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What I didn’t expect was that the route along historic sites, and the conversations with Lee and others I met, would force me to encounter my own pessimism about this divided nation — and my own fears.


That came later, though. First came Lee’s disarming vision of Juneteenth that has more to do with celebration than protests. More about a radical expansion of joy than intense focus on what divides us.


She explains that she wants all of America to celebrate freedom all the way from June 19 to July 4. She diffuses the argument that the Juneteenth holiday is somehow in competition with Independence Day by embracing both. America can celebrate freedom for 16 days — yes, the freedom of a small group of landed white male Americans and also the freedom of Black Americans from bondage a century later.


And freedom to Lee is expansive, not just the overcoming of enslavement and Jim Crow oppression, but the ability to thrive through access to education, health care, economic opportunity.


As I listened, I oscillated between awe and skepticism. Lee had won over people across America — red and blue, south and north. But I kept lobbing questions. Why should an event specific to Texas be a national holiday? Is it really about Black Texans not knowing about emancipation until Granger delivered the new? What of justice denied to this day?


Lee kept lobbing answers. But what struck me most was her stubborn optimism about the daunting pursuit of changing hearts and minds.


“I just know that there are people who hold back,” Lee said. “They want to help but they don't want to be accused. You know this Juneteenth thing, when it becomes a national holiday, will be the catalyst that’s going to make all of us realize that we are the same; we are made by one God ... I believe that if you can be taught to hate, you can be taught to love.”


After an hour of defending her vision of Juneteenth, Lee turned to me and asked if I believed in it.


The question caught me off guard. Until then, I’d been conducting myself as a journalist, shielded by my audio recorder and a job to do. But asking about my personal beliefs seemed to break a dam in my mind — and, admittedly, in my tear ducts. The struggle poured out — the struggle of wanting to believe in her vision of a national reconciliation, wanting to believe in the realization of racial equity but the knowing, through my own experiences in this country, how far we are from that utopia.


After the murder of George Floyd by police last year, memories came flooding back to me of growing up brown and Hindu in Mobile, Alabama, where my introduction to race relations began early with kindergartners at my nearly all-white Christian school refusing to touch me, where in later years I faced physical attacks and slurs, where some hair stylists refused to cut my hair, where some waiters didn’t take my family’s order, and on and on. You don’t survive those affronts to your basic humanity without building up armor. Pessimism is strong protection. Now Lee was asking me to shed it and embrace America as though it had never shunned me, with arms open and vulnerable.


We were still in the church, complete with century-old organ pipes, high-arches and oak pews. The original chapel had burned and was rebuilt in 1886. It was quiet but I felt the resonance of choirs past, of once enslaved people. I realized that although Juneteenth would be a secular holiday, what Lee asked of me, and what she’s asking of this nation, is grace.


I wanted to give it. But I’m also not one to falsely profess belief, especially in a church.


Lee wasn’t done with me, though. The next morning, on Memorial Day, she had another chance at my heart when my wife and our two children and I joined her for what turned out to be the final 2.5-mile walk in her campaign before she reached the Oval Office.


The walk


Television crews focused in on Lee, wearing white tennis shoes, small in stature but at ease revving up the crowd. Steve Williams, Sr., the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation president, played his trumpet and artist Ted Ellis unfurled the Juneteenth flag as she set off with about 100 people following her and a police car blocking off streets.


One of the first landmarks was one I know well: the Garten Verein, an octagonal dance hall built by Galveston’s German immigrant community in 1880. The wooden building, now owned by the Galveston Historic Foundation, survived the Great Storm of 1900 and overlooks Kempner Park.


I found my kids and told them excitedly, “that’s where your mom and I got married.” My mind traveled back to that day. I remember walking four times around the sacred fire the priest made under the outdoor pergola. We took the seven vows and then, finally, bowed before our elders. My grandmothers were still alive then and we touched their feet first. When we chose the site, we thought, what better place for my dancing immigrant family than this old immigrant dance hall?


Then the group stopped and local historian Sam Collins, who I had interviewed the previous day, explained that the site was once the home of Robert Mills, who had four plantations in Brazoria, Matagorda and Fort Bend counties, where they enslaved about 800 people. The mansion is gone. All built evidence of enslavement is gone. Only the decidedly post-Civil War German history is visible and that’s what the Galveston Historical Foundation’s website disclosed — nothing more.


The revelation jarred us. A place that had represented only beauty and love in our memories now seemed tainted by its violent past. It hit me the way that I imagine some native Texans feel upon learning about the connection between slavery and those who fought at the Alamo.


Along the route, I caught up with Collins and shared my torn feelings.


“How could you know the history if it wasn’t shared with you?” he told me, adding that the park had also been the site of Juneteenth celebrations. He imagined reclaiming the site, the pavilion and its shade for a future, massive Juneteenth event.


During the walk, Sharon Batiste Gillins, 70, kept stopping mid-interview to greet old friends. The intimacy of life on the island is something I’ve always admired. Most visitors to Galveston flock to the beach. Some shop on the Strand or fish the bay but what I’ve loved most is walking. Once, I left my car behind and rode commuter buses from Houston to Galveston. I experienced how compact the city is, how residents sit on their porches and talk.


Gillins was born on the island and graduated from the first integrated class at Ball High School in 1969.


“Well you know, we always grew up celebrating Juneteenth but as children we didn’t really understand the significance,” Gillins told me. “The true history of African Americans in this country has been either deleted or watered down in the historical narrative of this country. And so, it was not taught to us that 75 percent of the people who came here to enforce emancipation were Black. We didn’t know that. If you didn’t make any contributions, if you didn’t do anything, if you are not important to the history of the nation, does your life matter? I think that’s how those two things come together.”


Gillins had worked with Collins to dig up the newspaper records documenting the original Juneteenth in 1865. They found accounts describing Galveston as “occupied by colored troops.”


Make America Texas

The troops’ involvement is crucial for Gillins and Collins. For them, Juneteenth is about the history of Black people playing an active role in their emancipation and resisting Jim Crow.


“The Union doesn't win if the colored troops are not involved,” Collins says. .


Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian who teaches at Harvard and grew up in Montgomery County, elevates the event even more in her new book “On Juneteenth.” She wants Texas, and its seminal moment in Galveston, to sit right alongside Plymouth Rock in the founding story of America.


“Texas is a way to think about the United States of America,” Gordon-Reed told me by phone. “Every major current in American life, whether race, slavery, Jim Crow, Anglo-Latino relations, Indigenous people, the border — there’s no other place that has all of it together. Thinking about the road to Juneteenth, Texas is a good template. It makes as much sense as Plymouth.”


The mural


About halfway through the walk, as we walked down Broadway Avenue and the heat set in, Opal Lee looked worn. She kept going, even taking the reigns of her great-great granddaughter’s stroller.


Just looking at her, leaning into that stroller while leading all these people, I felt a bit of my soul seep out into the salty breeze. I felt raw, but also hopeful.


My 11-year-old son wanted to take a break but we kept making our way down the Strand, past the colonnades of the old buildings.


Finally, we rounded a corner and came upon the massive new mural created by a team led by Houston artist Reginald Charles Adams at the site where Granger first read the declaration. The group cheered for Lee. The mural itself fits in so much history. Over there, Estevanico, a Black man enslaved by the Spanish who survived shipwreck in 1529 and crossed North America with Cabeza de Vaca. There, the faces of Black union soldiers.


“I wanted Granger sitting,” Sam Collins told me. “And I wanted the men standing as men. Yeah, they're not bowing down underneath him, below him. They’re not cowering down, waiting to be rescued. They stood as men, and the expressions on their face have hope and skepticism.”


Letting down our guard

It’s profound statement — as are the walk and the holiday. But are they enough?


Last week, the comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted, “America is the only place on Earth where you ask for justice but you get a holiday.”


On CNN, Hughley noted the dissonance of the unanimous Senate vote for the Juneteenth holiday with the inaction over police reform legislation named for George Floyd and voting rights bills. Here in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill that simultaneously instructs teachers to include lessons on Juneteenth while limiting how they talk about current events, institutional racism and unconscious bias. Republicans have said they are open to teaching history “warts and all” but they have a fear that white children will be shamed for their race.


“I understand how they feel,” Gordon-Reed told me. “In fourth and seventh grade Texas history, we get a much more heroic presentation. Now someone is telling them it’s not heroic. It makes sense they would be sensitive about it.”


Still, she said, Texas is not only a place with a troubling history but also a place focused on the future.


“Juneteenth is a day about the hopefulness of people who had been through something unimaginable,” she said. “They saw themselves as moving forward. Anybody can get on board with that.”


And maybe that’s why people get on board with Opal Lee. She seems to understand the need for a unifying American history, one that is based on pride, not shame. She wants as much as anybody to get the justice, the police reform, the voting protections that protesters are demanding. She just has another path to get there.


Lee is asking people like me to let go of some of our anger just as she’s asking those who oppose the elevation of Juneteenth to abandon their fear of hard truths.. What if there is a legitimate middle path?


If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that America needs a shared identity in trying times so we can act in common interest and resist those who would undermine our basic values.


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At the end of the walk, my family rode in a shuttle back to the seawall and then headed to Stewart Beach. And it was in this place, off the Juneteenth trail, that I found the most compelling argument for Lee’s vision. This most public of places, the most polyglot, the most throbbing in its international mix of people, all coming together after a year of COVID lockdowns, reminded me how beautiful collective joy can be — and how powerful. .


Standing there, I began to imagine the Black Union troops coming ashore. They are walking among the sunbathers. They are still emancipating us. They are asking us to believe.


Mankad is the Chronicle’s op-ed editor. His email is raj.mankad@chron.com.


A correction was made to this essay on June 21. The man identified playing the horn during the Galveston walk was Steve Williams, National Juneteenth Observance Foundation president, not the late Ronald Myers, who was the founder of the organization.