This story is part of Project Tell Me, which records the wisdom and life experiences of Black Americans ages 75 and older by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The complete interview series will run across Hearst Magazines, Newspapers, and television websites starting Juneteenth 2021. Go to Hearst.com/ProjectTellMe for more info.
Opal Lee is a community activist from Fort Worth, Texas, who has been campaigning to make Juneteenth a national holiday since 2016.
Mariah Campbell is a rising senior studying journalism at Texas Southern University.
A few years ago, in the middle of a political science class, my professor started talking about something called Juneteenth, a holiday that has roots in Galveston, Texas, 51 miles from where I sat at my university in Houston.
She was helping organize an annual two-week celebration to commemorate June 19, 1865 (June 19 = Juneteenth), the day the last remaining slaves in the U.S. found out they were free to leave their slaveholders’ clutches, a whole two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
It was and is one of the most important moments in American history—and yet, even as a lifelong Texan and a Black woman, I had no idea it existed. Probably bc it’s not routinely taught in school curriculums (thanks, American education system) and, unlike July 4th, Thanksgiving, or even George Washington’s birthday, it’s not a nationally recognized holiday.
So when it became clear last year that a *lot* of other people had never heard of Juneteenth, I wasn’t even a little surprised. Despite its absence from the national stage, Juneteenth has long been observed by Black communities. Over time, the parties, concerts, parades, picnics, and fairs have spread across the country.
And while the events are mostly festive, the truth is that the delayed liberation of slaves in Texas foreshadowed well over a century of ongoing inequality. You only have to fast-forward to summer 2020 to see what I mean: The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd awakened non-Black Americans to the continued horrors of systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality against Black people. Those events and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed forced everyone to recognize that we weren’t truly free after 1863 or 1865 or even 2020.
The overdue conversation about racist power structures in the weeks leading up to last year’s Juneteenth made the bittersweet celebration of freedom more relevant to more people than ever. “I am delighted so many people are understanding Juneteenth,” says Opal Lee, 94, who has been leading the effort to make the date a national holiday. “It’s a pity that it was because people lost their lives.”
Today, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is ready and waiting in the U.S. Senate, where it needs and deserves to be passed. It’s time for June 19 to be observed by the entire country, because Black people shouldn’t be the only ones celebrating the end of slavery, acting against racism, or recognizing how America once benefited from inhumane, unpaid Black labor. Ideally, Juneteenth as a national holiday would give everyone the day off work to learn about the Black experience, says my former Texas Southern University professor Dorris Ellis Robinson, PhD, who first introduced me to this date.
That said, if and when the bill is signed into law, using your time off to throw a BBQ or post a black square isn’t exactly The Move—especially if you’re not in the Black community. Instead, says Ellis Robinson, try seeking out info on the struggles of Black Americans and the ways slavery impacted our culture. That might mean listening to a podcast like 1619 from the New York Times or watching a documentary like 13th on Netflix. Or you could take the day to volunteer with racial-justice orgs like Black Lives Matter, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight.
In the meantime, sign Lee’s Change.org petition to support making Juneteenth an official national holiday recognized by corporations, governments, and communities across the country. Because when we all honor this historic moment, we acknowledge that society still doesn’t treat all Americans equally. We acknowledge the resilience of Black communities in their constant pursuit of liberty. And we acknowledge that freedom for all people is essential for the entire country to succeed.
“We need to understand that we can do more together than we can apart,” says Lee, echoing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “None of us are free until we are all free.”
To learn more about Opal Lee’s incredible journey and to read her entire interview with Mariah Campbell, go to Cosmopolitan.com/ProjectTellMe.
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