By Felecia Piggott-Long, Ph.D.

Joel 2:25-27 reads:

25 And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.

26 And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you; and my people shall never be ashamed.

27 And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God, and none else: and my people shall never be ashamed.

Dr. Opal Lee, 97, civil rights activist, is affectionately known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” because of all the efforts she has made over the years to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. In 2016, at the age of 89, she felt led to lead an annual two-and-a-half-mile march in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to symbolize the fact that the enslaved persons in the United States had to wait two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, before the signing took effect on their lives on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. 

Juneteenth became a federal holiday on Thursday, June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed into law legislation that would establish June 19 as “Juneteenth National Independence Day,” according to CNN reports.

I will never forget this day because on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, I delivered a PowerPoint presentation on the topic of Juneteenth for the Lab Corp Company. There were more than 400 people on that call, and they were from across the United States. I also saw names from France and other countries. I was nervous, but I was prepared to inform them for such a time as this. 

I had no idea that we as a people were that close to achieving this national holiday. The very next day, Juneteenth became a national holiday. I lifted my hands in praise to God for all of the efforts that have gone forth over the years.

This Juneteenth 2024 also marks the anniversary of the day more than 500 white rioters destroyed the home of Opal Lee’s parents, Otis and Mattie Flake, on June 19, 1939.  At that time, Lee was 12 years old. Her parents sent her and her siblings to the home of a neighbor while they left town under the cloak of darkness. According to Dr. Lee’s interview on YouTube, her parents never spoke of the destruction of their home again. Like the family of Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright of “A Raisin in the Sun,” the Flakes had moved into a white neighborhood, but they were pushed out by an angry mob. Otis and Mattie Flake refused to give up their birthright – The American Dream of a home for their family. They just worked, saved and put their family into another home. 

Nevertheless, this destructive trauma had a grave effect on the Flake family, because the parents later divorced, but the calling of civil rights activism was already upon Opal Flake. The dream of achieving the national holiday was destined to become a reality. Eighty-five years later, restoration has come to Dr. Opal Lee. Now 97, Dr. Opal Lee received the keys to her new home on Friday, June 14, 2024, which was built on the same corner lot in Fort Worth, Texas, that her family was driven from when she was 12 years old.

Several area groups came together to build and furnish the house. The home was funded by Texas Capital Bank, Trinity Habitat for Humanity, and HistoryMaker Homes. Texas Capital funding for the furnishings and HistoryMaker Homes built the home at no cost to Lee. The 1,700 square feet home has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Instead of becoming bitter and jaded about the hardships she and her family faced, she held on to her faith.

The prophet Joel addresses the nation of Judah about the hardships they have endured in warfare, famine, loss of crops and other losses they have faced. Joel reveals that God will restore the fruits of the harvests which the locusts have consumed. God is sending new grain, new wine, new olive oil to enrich their lives. Although a person cannot have time back, God is able to restore the wasted blessings, the fruits that died on the vine, the unripened fruits of years that a person mourned for.

I am sure that for years, Dr. Lee thought about what her family lost, but now, through forgiveness, healing, redemption, and renewal, God can restore the lost years. Although Dr. Lee chose to forgive the 500 rioters who ransacked their home and destroyed their property, she has been blessed to have outlived many of them. Her home is a symbol of unity and love. Love prevails. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love endures, but hate will fail.

In the same way that Dr. Lee chose to forgive those who transgressed against her, many African Americans have chosen to do likewise. For more than 400 years, African Americans were stolen from their homeland, enslaved, beaten, raped, starved, mistreated, lynched, sold away and so much more. When God restores lost years, a person gains a renewed sense of faith and spiritual growth. 

When the Piggott family chose to forgive the man who murdered my younger brother in 1991, it was not easy, but it was necessary to have peace of mind and to move on with the plan and destiny that was already prepared for us.

For Dr. Opal Lee, this is a year of jubilee. 

Biblically, the year of jubilee is a celebration devoted to liberty and justice observed every 50 years by the Israelites. During this time, Israelites serving as indentured servants were released from their debts and set free. All properties that were given up because of indebtedness since the last jubilee were returned to the original owners. 

Dr. Opal Lee can now go home again. Time spent in unfruitful living has been restored. Now she is interested in getting to know her new neighbors, just as she desired to do 85 years ago. Her new home is a symbol of community. He who the Son sets free is free indeed. 

“Oh Freedom! OOOh Freedom!  Oh Freedom over me,

And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord and be free.” ~ From a Negro Spiritual