The grandmother of Juneteenth is 97 years old. But Fort Worth activist Opal Lee still led hundreds of North Texans in a two-and-a-half mile walk to commemorate Juneteenth.

Lee said Juneteenth is a day to honor freedom.

“July 4 freed the land, but Juneteenth freed the people,” Lee said.

Eight years ago, at the age of 89, Lee began walking from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. — 2.5 miles every day for the two-and-a-half years that Black Texans waited after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 before the message arrived in Galveston in 1865.

This year, she walked that distance with hundreds of people around the African American Museum in Dallas’ Fair Park.

In 2021, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery after the Civil War.

Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, last month. At a ceremony at the White House, Biden called the law he signed making Juneteenth an official holiday one of the most “important” of his presidency.

“Opal Lee made it her mission to make history, not erase it, and we are a better nation because of you,” Biden said.

But Lee’s work isn’t finished.

She helped kickstart the National Juneteenth Museum, which is set to open in Fort Worth’s historic South Side neighborhood on next year’s Juneteenth, according to their website.

Mya Lewis, the museum’s executive assistant, said the Juneteenth Museum will be a place to honor Juneteenth’s history and the historically underserved community in the South Side.

“The community deserves all of their flowers, and so I’m excited for our museum to become an anchor, because we’re going to be more than a museum,” Lewis said.

Carolyn Maxine, a 74-year-old Pleasant Grove resident, said she grew up celebrating Juneteenth with her family. But Maxine didn’t get the day off from work until it became a federal holiday.

She said that’s thanks to Opal Lee’s activism.

“It says a lot about her,” Maxine said. “She stayed the course. So we’re very grateful and thankful.”

Jamie Reynolds is also a Black woman from South Dallas. She didn’t celebrate Juneteenth until adulthood, when she learned about Juneteenth for the first time from a friend at Dillard University.

Reynolds said there needs to be more education and awareness about the holiday and its historic significance.

“There’s a reason why we continuously are talking about things like the Holocaust, and it’s to scare and remind you that those kind of things are unacceptable and they cannot happen again,” she said. “And that’s why it’s important that we remember our history, and we talk about our history.”

KERA’s Zara Amaechi contributed to this report.

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Caroline Love is a Report For Americacorps member for KERA News.

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