By: Malcolm Mayhew
When Opal Lee’s grandparents relocated from Louisiana to Texas, they did so in two covered wagons. When they finally arrived, her grandfather – “Poppa,” as she still calls him – settled down to farming. He had 160 acres to tend and no way to hire the help he needed, Opal says, so “he grew help instead.”
Opal, who will turn 91 in October, is the eldest daughter of one of that patriarch’s 19 children – 16 of whom survived to adulthood. Today, she is sitting in her dining room, telling me about how she’s trying to raise $30,000 for her upcoming family reunion. Once every three years, the family’s scattered descendants select a city and come together to catch up.
For many nonagenarians, raising that amount of money would be a daunting, even impossible, task. But Opal Lee mentions it in passing, as an interesting side project she’s engaged in, before moving on to tell me about her primary work – her continuing efforts to have Juneteenth declared a national holiday.
Inspired by the work of Dr. Ronald Myers, who started the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, and her mentor, Lenora Rolla, who founded the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society, Opal dreamed up her “Walk to DC.” She says she thought that “if a little old lady in tennis shoes started walking to Washington, someone would take notice.” Initially, she had every intention of walking straight there, but cooler heads prevailed.
When Opal finally started walking, the journey was more symbolic than literal. She traveled the country, only going “where she was invited,” and walking five miles each day, often at the head of a group of students or community supporters. She walked in Shreveport and Fort Smith, in Charlotte and Little Rock and Madison and Birmingham. In Texarkana she walked from the county courthouse to the cemetery where her grandparents are buried. In DC, Congressman Veasey arranged for her to walk from Frederick Douglass’ house to the capital.
She’s not walking anymore, but Juneteenth is still one of her many passion projects. She’s one of the organizers of the local holiday celebrations and, this year, she proudly told me, was going to be the best parade yet. There are activities planned over four days, June 16-19, and the organizers anticipate a turnout of more than 2,500 people.
Unrelentingly positive, Miss Opal (as she is commonly called) is nonetheless practical, media savvy, and tough as nails. According to her, she learned it from her mother, a woman who – when her husband moved to Fort Worth for work and couldn’t afford to bring his family – sold the family’s only cow, packed up her children, and made the move on her own. After years of short-term rentals (her brother says 17; she counts 19), financial struggle, and even a firebombing (when the young family dared to settle in a neighborhood where they were not wanted), they finally found a permanent home on East Terrell in Fort Worth’s Southside.
Opal grew up in that home and attended the Cooper School, the same school where she would later teach. She was clever, but not a particularly dedicated student. In her final year, she begged her mother to let her drop out so that she could go to work full time at Harris Hospital, where she was employed in the kitchen and earning $20 a week – more than twice what her mother was paid elsewhere. Her mother insisted that she finish school, and she did, but she did not go on to college.
Instead, she married almost immediately and “had four babies so fast it woulda made your head spin.” In the end, the marriage didn’t work. So she went home to her mama and told her she was ready to go back to school. The way Opal tells it, her mother looked at her and told her there was no money for that – and “in her very next breath, she said, ‘but I’ll watch your children.’ ”
She went to school at night while working at Convair (now Lockheed Martin). Opal completed her teaching degree and spent the next 15 years teaching the third grade, and 10 years more as a “visiting teacher” with FWISD. As a visiting teacher, her job was closer to that of a social worker. If a student stopped attending, she asked questions. Did they have clean clothes? Enough food? Were the lights on at home? Did they have a home? Once she knew what was keeping students out of school, she would try to get them access to the necessities and get them back in the classroom.
Now, in addition to her Juneteenth activism, she keeps herself busy by delivering food for Meals on Wheels –“to the old folks,” she says, laughing – and organizing a community garden for her neighborhood.
She still reads voraciously, and friends all over the country mail her books they think she’ll enjoy. I ask her if she’ll ever write her own book, and she tells me there aren't enough hours in the day. Besides, Juneteenth isn’t a national holiday yet. She says that they got close a couple of times under Obama, but the resolution never passed. So now, she says, “I’ve gotta go see Trump.”
By: Malcolm Mayhew