The “grandmother of Juneteenth” on the holiday’s past, present, and future

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. On July 5th, 1852, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at an Independence Day celebration in New York. He was kicking ass and taking names and asked the question on all Black folks’ minds, “What to the American slave is the Fourth of July?” One Independence Day when I was a kid, between the fireworks and the cookout, my dad made sure I read that speech. Now, I didn’t understand everything in it, but that question I got. And he wanted to make sure I knew that barbecue aside, this was not the day of our independence. For us, that day is our beloved Juneteenth. This Saturday, June 19th, will mark one hundred fifty six years since the day slavery was ended in Texas. And for years, Juneteenth celebrations have been mostly regional, but especially in the years since the Ferguson uprising, and especially after last year, more and more of us have wanted to reclaim our stories and our history, our celebrations. And so Juneteenth has risen in the American consciousness for Black folks and for non Black folks too. Personally, I’ve found myself caring more about this holiday. Last year I was invited by Billie Eilish, yes that Billie Eilish, to take over her Apple radio show for Juneteenth. And up until UNDISTRACTED it was the thing I was proudest to create. Between playing songs from DJ 2.0’s revolutionary playlist, shout out to my homie George Peters. I shared stories from my own family and musings about race and justice from my artist and activist and historian friends. Afterwards, thousands of teenagers found me on the internet to tell me that what they had gleaned from that single Juneteenth special, it was more than they had ever learned in school. You know, we usually teach what Black people lost, but rarely what we’ve created. Our contributions to this country from our labor to our culture to our innovations, have made this country what it is from root to tip. And what we’ve made, including our holidays, deserve to be just as much part of the American canon as anything else. This is our Independence Day, and it’s as good a time as any to go get free. 


On the show today, Miss Opal Lee. I’ll be talking to the 94 year old social activist from Texas about her campaign to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. 

Miss Opal Lee We weren’t free on the Fourth of July, 1776 and we are part of these great big United States. So let’s make it unanimous. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s a special edition of “UNtrending News.”

This week, we are switching things up a bit. I wanted to kick off summer, yes, it is officially about to begin. It’s hot out here in these streets. And I wanted to give you some culture recommendations. So here’s what I’m watching, reading and listening to right now. First up, I can’t let Juneteenth pass without giving a shout out to the new Netflix food show that has been blowing up the internet High on the Hog. The four part docu-series hosted by food writer and chef Steven Satterfield, explores the legacy of Black American cuisine and the countless ways that African and African-American food and cooking traditions have influenced what we all just call American food. Here’s a clip with culinary historian Michael Twitty. 

Michael Twitty We call our food soul food. We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel like love and God, something completely transcendental. It’s about a connection between us and our dead and us and those who are waiting to be born. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Steven, the host, starts the show in the country of Benin in West Africa and travels throughout the U.S. to meet chefs and learn about the history of dishes that are central to Black-American culture and American culture. You may even see some familiar faces and names that you heard in our episode a few weeks ago with Natalie Bazile. I’m honestly getting hungry, thinking about it. I want some grilled lamb with spicy Mojo sauce. I want some mac and cheese. I definitely want some Texas barbecue. So come for the food, but stay for the themes of Black creativity, community and resilience. 

Twitter’s favorite writer and one of mine too, Ashley C. Ford, well she has a new memoir out called Somebody’s Daughter. It’s about her childhood, growing up a Black girl in Indiana and her relationships with her father, who was incarcerated for most of her life, and her mother, who she struggled with. Ashley is a brilliant writer. She took a look at some very hard truths with honest introspection and thoughtfulness. It made me think about my own family and about how all of our families shape everything about us. I am forever changed by losing my dad at age 12 and being raised by a Black woman, a widow of deep faith and purpose. I’m also grateful Ashley touches on the Black and Midwestern experience, which is my own, and a lot of times it’s ignored. We are thankfully now starting to get more stories about Black southerners and Black folks from the coasts. But Black folks in the Midwest, we need love too. 

And lastly, my friends Karega and Felicia Bailey have an incredibly empowering podcast called SOL Affirmations that’s S-O-L. And it’s a weekly listen for me. 

Karega and Felicia Bailey Singing It could be a dark world sometimes. Don’t be afraid to be a source of light. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham They are also fantastic musicians and did the theme song. In 2019, Karega and Felicia became angel parents to their newborn daughter, Kamaiu Sol, who died shortly after birth. SOL Affirmations is a show about grief, but ultimately it’s a show about love. Karega and Felicia are beautiful examples of resilience in my life and my husband’s, and they are incredibly vulnerable in their pain and in their joy. They’ve gotten me through some really tough days because their care just comes through the speakers so clearly. They’ve recently welcomed their second child, Kamali, just a few weeks ago. Their journey has been so blessed and so beautiful to see. And this podcast they’ve shared with us is such a gift. 

Coming up, I will be talking to the formidable Miss Opal Lee about her dream to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, right after this short break. 

And we are back. My guest today is known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, but she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s just a little old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody’s business. Miss Opal Lee is a former teacher and now full time community activist from Texas who for the past five years has made it her mission to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. She started a walking campaign, a series of lectures and events and an ever growing online petition. Miss Opal wants Juneteenth to be as big, if not bigger, than the Fourth of July, because, as she reminds everyone, Black folks were not free in 1776. Right now, at the age of 94, Miss Opal is as determined as ever, and it looks like her dream is getting closer to becoming a reality. In fact, much closer. On Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill to make June 19th a federal holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day. It still needs to pass in the House and be signed by President Biden to become law, but it is expected to happen. I spoke to Miss Opal last week before this news came out. Miss Opal, thank you so, so much for having this conversation with us. I am just beyond thrilled to be talking to you. 

Miss Opal Lee Well, thank you, sweetheart. I’m thrilled to be talking to you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So, I want to begin at the beginning. There are a lot of people who are not familiar with the holiday. Can you explain what Juneteenth is all about? What does it represent? 

Miss Opal Lee Well, I’d have to tell you about enslaved people that were brought to these United States and worked on cane and cotton fields on plantations under the most adverse circumstances. So, the president Abraham Lincoln, issued a proclamation called the Emancipation Proclamation, and he issued it in 1863. With the United States being so large, the word didn’t get to the Texans and those enslaved in Texas until 1865, when a general Gordon Granger, made his way to Galveston with thousands of colored troops and they fanned out to tell the people there, all the enslaved people were free. And he nailed the general order to the door of what’s really now Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the enslaved came in from their work and somebody read that to them, we started celebrating and we’ve been celebrating ever since. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You believe that freedom should be celebrated from the 19th of June all the way to the Fourth of July? 

Miss Opal Lee That’s right. We weren’t free on the Fourth of July, 1776 and we are part of these great big United States. So let’s make it unanimous. Let’s celebrate freedom, unity as long as we can, not just one day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So before I ask you about this year’s Juneteenth, take me back a few years. You were born in Marshall, Texas, in 1926. How did you celebrate Juneteenth growing up? 

Miss Opal LeeIn Marshall, Juneteenth was celebrated at the state fairgrounds. Oh, that was music and baseball and food and more food. And I tell you, it was almost like Christmas. We were so glad. I can remember, and I was really small. When we made our way to Fort Worth, people weren’t celebrating so much, you know, families would get together. But the Tarrant County Black Historical Society sponsored Juneteenth in the ‘70s in Sycamore Park, a tiny little park on the south side. And would you know, the paper said there were 30,000 people in a three day period. Ten thousand people a day. And if I tell you that was a festival, believe it. It was — I’m going to say what the kids say, it was off the chain. Marvelous. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I love that. That is such an incredible experience of joy and beauty and humor and Blackness. Oh, my gosh. What a time. What a time to be alive. But I know that every Juneteenth, unfortunately, was not that festive. When you were 10, you and your family moved from Marshall to a mostly white neighborhood in Fort Worth. And I understand that when you were 12, you and your family experienced something absolutely horrific on June the 19th. Do you feel comfortable just telling us a little of what happened? 

Miss Opal Lee My parents bought this house and my mom had it fixed up so nice. But on the 19th day of June, people started gathering across the street in the evening and the paper says there were 500 of them and the police couldn’t control them. When my dad came home with a gun, the police said if he busted a cap they’d let the mob have us. My parents sent us to neighbors several blocks away. They stayed and they left under the cover of darkness. Those people took the furniture out. They burned it. They burned the house. It was horrible. My parents never, ever talked to us about it. They struggled and struggled and they bought another house. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m so sorry, I’m overcome listening to this. So that — that mob of — of 500 white supremacists, they ransacked your family’s home, set fire to it in 1939. Like you said, the police did nothing to intervene and no arrests were made. And like Black people know how to do, you made immense beauty out of literal ashes. I mean, it propelled you into a life of activism. 

Miss Opal Lee I think it did. I really think it did. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham You went on to become a mother and a teacher and a community activist. And not only do you believe that we should celebrate freedom from Juneteenth to July the 4th, you have made it your mission to have Juneteenth be declared a national holiday. Why do you think this needs to happen? What — what is your vision? 

Miss Opal Lee I really believe that we should be able to work together to dispel the disparities that exist now, and I’m talking about homelessness. Everybody needs a decent place to stay. Joblessness, and even if you got a job and I’m paid one thing and you paid another, that’s not cool. Healthcare, I can get treatment and you can’t. Climate change, I’m adamant about climate change. The scientists have told us that we are committing the worst things on our Earth and I truly believe if we don’t do something about it, that we’re all going to be annihilated, but we can work together as opposed to what is happening now. I firmly believe that, and I believe Juneteenth is the catalyst to make that come true. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So in 2016, when you were only 89, you began your campaign by walking from your home in Fort Worth, Texas, all the way to Washington, D.C.. I mean, that’s some revolutionary stuff Miss Opal. What can you tell us about that walk? 

Miss Opal Lee I can tell you that I started it from the steps of my church, Baker Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. My pastor was there and the musicians and the county commissioner and the school board members and others, we had a little ceremony. And so they sent me off walking two and a half miles to symbolize that the enslaved didn’t know they were free for two and a half years after the emancipation. And when I finished that, the next day I started where I left off. I did that through several cities, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Dallas, two and a half miles. I was invited all over these United States. Fort Smith and Little Rock, Denver Colorado, Colorado Springs, down in Atlanta, Hampton Virginia, all over the place. So if I left September 2016, I actually got there January 2017. I met so many people, so many people and lots and lots who knew absolutely nothing about Juneteenth. I’ve had a grand time making people aware. So like I say, I keep on walking, I keep on talking until it’s a holiday. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So you kept on walking and you kept on talking and you ended up gathering one point five million signatures for your Change dot org petition, which you delivered to Congress last September in 2020. What are the next steps? What is it going to take for Juneteenth to become a national holiday? 

Miss Opal Lee It’s going to take people making themselves a committee of one. Each one of us should teach one of us. Now, you know, people who are not on the same page you are on.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Certainly. 

Miss Opal Lee Their minds need to be changed. If somebody can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love it. It’s up to us to change the minds of those people so that we can get about the business of eradicating the disparities that are all around us that need to be taken care of. And it takes all of us. Not Black people, not white people, but all people working together. I think about the Underground Railroad and how the Quakers and Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, those people were untiringly to help those people get away from what was happening to them. And we can do the same thing. We can eradicate the things that are plaguing our nation. And I want us to do it together. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So Juneteenth started in Galveston, but it’s now being recognized in some way, shape or form by forty seven states. Washington, New York and Virginia are making it a paid day off for state workers. There are some companies that are now giving their employees the day off on June 19th. How does it feel to see your vision at least begin to become a reality? 

Miss Opal Lee I’m ecstatic, I really am so happy I could do a holy dance, but you wait until it is actually a holiday i am going to do a holy dance. So get ready for it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m ready for it, we’re going to be dancing with you. I promise you, Miss Opal. It seems like so many more people have learned about Juneteenth in the last year right? Especially following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all of these protests and demonstrations for Black lives. I guess people are — we’re finally starting to catch up to you. 

Miss Opal Lee Well, I think people have decided that enough is enough and we need to sit down at the table and figure things out and get things going so that everybody will have an opportunity. And I think our schools could do a lot better than they are about telling the truth. I’ve seen pictures in the school books, people picking cotton, smiling. Nobody smiles about picking cotton. It’s not something that you’re going to be smiling about. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Like you said, there is really still a long way to go to achieve true emancipation. I mean, you listed off so many of the issues that we have. And this past year, the pandemic has been a really sobering reminder of just how far we have to go. You know, as someone who has been witness to a whole lot of history, where do you think we’re at right now in terms of our struggle for freedom? 

Miss Opal Lee We are at a crossroads and we need to make up our minds in what direction we want to go. I hear people say we’ll soon be able to go back to normal. That’s not the normal I want to go back to. I want us to make strides in eradicating the things that are divisive and get on with the business of making this the best country in the whole wide world. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So before I let you go, I know you have been very busy in the lead up to this year’s Juneteenth celebrations. I truly don’t know where you get all the energy, but I hope you drop some of that off at my house. How are you celebrating Juneteenth and really this season of freedom that you have pushed us to celebrate? How are you celebrating it this year? 

Miss Opal Lee Oh, listen, I thought you’d never ask. Last year, because we couldn’t have the parades that we usually have. We had a caravan, I walked the two and a half miles and I was under the impression ten or fifteen cars would follow. I had three hundred cars, three hundred cars followed me on that two and a half mile walk. this year we’re going to do it again. But if we walk at 10:00 here in Fort Worth, in L.A. they’ll be walking at 8:00, in Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, they’ll be walking at 11:00. It’ll be simultaneous. It’s going to be all over the United States. I think it’s going to be fabulous. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It sounds like it’s going to be fabulous. And we can’t wait to join in it with you. And I just cannot tell you how grateful I am for your commitment to us for your entire life. Thank you for helping set us free. 

Miss Opal Lee Thank you, sweetheart. And thank you for having me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Miss Opal Lee is a social activist from Texas who’s known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth. You can find out more information about Miss Opal’s campaign at Opal’s Walk, the number two, DC dot com. There is a ZZ plant in my office, I named her Joanna for my great, great, great, great grandmother who was born enslaved in 1820. Joanna has been the fastest, tallest growing plant in our entire home. And she reminds me of Miss Opal and so many of our ancestors and our elders; unstoppable, unflappable, unbowed, unbossed and unbought. And with the news that the Senate just passed this bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday there’s been some concern that this move is just to placate those of us who are demanding more. And frankly, it’s a concern I share. I mean, in a time when everything from voting rights to police violence has been ignored by Washington, it is more than fair to worry. And I’m willing to bet plenty of GOP and Democratic lawmakers just wanted to pass this bill to get us to shut up about the other stuff. Their motivations may not be pure, but Miss Opal’s motivations are. And we have to refuse to let them hijack Miss Opal’s true fight. I didn’t hear Miss Opal say this holiday was the end. I heard her say it’s just the beginning. She said each one of us should teach one of us. So in this season of freedom, let’s heed Miss Opal’s wisdom. Let’s learn and share the powerful history of Juneteenth and embrace all that it means now, including the elders we should always honor and the fights that we continue in their name. The bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is now headed to the House and then to President Biden’s desk for his signature. Well done, Miss Opal. I can’t wait to do that holy dance with you. 

That is it for today, but y’all know, never for tomorrow. 


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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. 

Have a great Juneteenth y’all.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.