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"People won't know . . ."

Women as activists and change-agents are a salient category in my extensive collection of women's history landmarks. Opal Lee, activist and change- agent extraordinaire, scored a singular achievement—doggedly spearheading the movement to make Juneteenth a federally-recognized holiday. At the state level, Juneteenth was first officially celebrated in 1980 in Texas, where, on June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger posted Order No. 3 that began with the words: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

The name Granger caught my attention because my middle name is Granger, after my grandmother Mary Elizabeth Granger. Mary's brother Walter Granger, who married his cousin Anna Granger, was a renowned vertebrate paleontologist. As I wrote in my Author's Note in Adventurous Women, "All my life, I heard stories about Uncle Walter and his wife, Anna, known as "Annie." How he searched for dinosaurs and extinct mammals and fossil primates throughout the American West and Egypt and China and Mongolia. How he and his assistants discovered the first whole dinosaur eggs and nest. How Annie worked with Walter in China for almost ten years and published several articles in Natural History, including one titled "Rescuing a Little-known Chinese Art: How an Explorer's Wife 'Discovered' a Fascinating Style of Peasant Embroidery in Far Western China, and Helped to Save it from Oblivion."

Recently my son David, an Associate Professor of African American History, Ramapo College of New Jersey, told me that General Gordon Granger and my great grandfather Charles H. Granger, the father of Mary and Walter and a Civil War veteran, were distant cousins! David and Nickie gave their two sets of twins family names, and, yes, one of them is named Granger. Left image: two Grangers.

Originally known as "Emancipation Day," annual celebrations were held in Texas and spread as people moved here and there. The festivities included speeches, parades, "Miss Juneteenth" contests," music, and games of all sorts, including baseball. The right image is an article from The Austin Weekly Statesman, June 18, 1874. p. 3.

In 2003, 28 states and the District of Columbia legally recognized Juneteenth as a public holiday. The second image is Opal Lee with President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Act Bill in 2021, the year Opal Lee turned 94 years old. Right image was taken at the signing.

Within a few years after she graduated from high school in Fort Worth, Texas, Opal got married, had four children, got divorced, and eventually earned a master's degree in counseling and guidance. "I had decided," she said, "I couldn't support four children on $15 a week in tips" that she was earning as a hotel maid. In 1976, she retired from the Fort Worth school district, planning to begin a life of "exotic travel." But her recently retired husband wanted no part of that life. "And," Opal Lee once told a reporter, "I decided I didn't just want to sit home."

Driving her orange-red Ford pickup, she was a whirlwind of activity, collecting archival material for a historical society that she helped found, giving speeches, planning celebrations for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Juneteenth, and mobilizing the movement to make Juneteenth a national celebration.

In 1990, she campaigned for Ann Richards who served as governor of Texas from 1991-1995. (I, too, was an Ann Richards fan.) That same year Fort Worth's mayor appointed Opal Lee to the Complete Count Committee to encourage people to be counted in the U.S. Census. “I didn’t think I had any energy left except for the historical society,” she told a reporter. “But I’m sure enough committed to see that we all be counted in this census, whether it’s folks under a bridge, just getting out of jail, in a vacant house, wherever they are.” The next image is the conclusion of an article that she wrote:

Lee, Opal, "Participation in census is vital," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 29, 1990, p. 133.

Passionate about the importance and power of knowing your history, Opal Lee fervently believes that "People won't know where they're going until they know where they come from and there's got to be somebody to show the way." So, she took it upon herself to be that "somebody" who is now known as the "grandmother of Juneteenth."

Note: Opal Lee's quotations are from: Squires, David R., “Full-time volunteer started with black history work," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 29 1990 p. 133.

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