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Nearly two dozen retired members of the AFT gathered in Houston from June 18 to 20, for a union organizing training and a special Juneteenth celebration. The group, part of the AFT Retiree Legacy Initiative (RLI), had planned to participate in Opal’s Walk Campaign, inspired by Opal Lee, who at age 89 began her journey in 2016 by walking from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to advocate for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday—a dream realized in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed it into law. The group was hosted by members of Texas AFT Retirees Plus.

Members of the AFT Retiree Legacy Initiative gathered in Houston to celebrate Juneteenth.

The RLI members, who represent a diverse group of retirees committed to social justice, intended to honor Lee’s legacy by walking in Galveston. Every year, Lee walks 2.5 miles to symbolize the 2.5 years it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn of their freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. However, a tropical storm forced the group to alter its plans. Instead, they walked 2.5 miles in the Houston Galleria and engaged in organizing conversations, sharing their stories and learning from each other’s experiences. They also visited the Houston Museum of African American Culture, enriching their understanding of the local history.

Retirees visited the Houston Museum of African American Culture to enrich their understanding of local history.

Melondia Franklin Corpus, a member of Florida Education Association Retired chapter, and an RLI member, explained why she joined the initiative: “I thought it was really important once I understood the vision and mission of the initiative. We need to know our history, our true history, not what they want us to know. If you don’t know where you came from, how can you know where you’re going?”

Franklin Corpus shared her personal experiences of discrimination as a biracial individual, emphasizing the importance of embracing one’s identity despite societal expectations. “You don’t have to fit into someone else’s perception of who you are,” she said. “You can build your own character. I’ve always learned to walk to the beat of my own drummer.”

Lisa Y. Wilson, who retired from the United Federation of Teachers in New York City after a 38-year career in early childhood education, echoed the importance of organizing and sharing stories. “It’s crucial to remind people of the significance of unions and organized labor,” she said. “People need to understand that they must be active participants, bringing others in and staying involved.”

Wilson also valued the opportunity to tell her story authentically. “One of things I like about being part of the RLI is being able to share, even if it makes others uncomfortable,” she said. “My story is my story. If it hurts your feelings, it still needs to be told.”

Members of the AFT Retiree Legacy Initiative following their 2.5 mile walk to symbolize the 2.5 years it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn of their freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lynette Lazarus, a retired school nurse and member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers retiree chapter, stressed the importance of equity and inclusion: “We must honor and respect everyone.”

Frank Roder, a retired behavior specialist and member of the Florida Education Association Retired chapter, felt honored to be included in the RLI as an ally. “I want to be part of the right side of history,” he said, reflecting on the importance of standing in solidarity with his peers.

Viola Curry, a Philadelphia teacher for over two decades, found the RLI to be a healing experience. Initially hesitant, she grew comfortable sharing her true history and emotional experiences with the group. “It’s a safe place where we can express our feelings without judgment,” said Curry, who is also a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers retiree chapter. “Being in Houston on Juneteenth is significant for understanding the impact of our history, not just for us but also for our allies and others.”

Despite the tropical storm that thwarted their original plans, the RLI members made the most of their time in Houston, using their voices to advocate for social justice and celebrate a pivotal moment in American history. Their stories, shared with authenticity and passion, underscored the importance of remembering the past to shape a better future.

[Adrienne Coles]