Opal's faith helped create Juneteenth holiday jewel
Opal Lee watches as President Biden signs the law to make Junteenth a federal holiday on Thursday, June 17, 2021. Why is that old lady out here at this time of night?” was my first thought as I noticed a senior African American woman sitting by herself on a bench near a train platform at nearly 11 p.m. on December 17, 2018. I was waiting with a group of friends for one of the late-night Trinity Railway Express train to take us back to Fort Worth, Texas. Even though I was still very hyped about having just seen Michelle Obama at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, I was intrigued by the woman and watched her for a few minutes to see if maybe she was waiting on someone. But after a few minutes, no one joined her. “Where are her people?” I wondered. I immediately thought of my mother and how I would not want her traveling by herself at that time of night. So, I did what is a part of my nosey…uh…inquisitive nature. I walked over to her and started a conversation. After sharing that she loved Michelle Obama and had just seen her, she added that she was hoping she could talk to Mrs. Obama about making Juneteenth a national holiday. It then clicked in my mind who she was. I asked her if she was Opal Lee by chance. Lee, who is often called “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” is and educator and activist whose campaign to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday culminated with the June 17 signing of a bill making it a national holiday. She nodded her head yes to my inquiry that evening three years ago and then pulled a stack of papers from her purse explaining why Juneteenth becoming a national holiday was so important. She stated that she was a little disappointed that she did not have a chance to meet with Mrs. Obama personally, but that she was going to keep trying. Her optimism was contagious as she added that she had faith and that she knew one day it would happen. When I asked if she was traveling with anyone, with a determined twinkle in her eye, she declared that she was by herself. Before I could ask why, she stated that her people would not have wanted her to come and that they did not know she was there by herself. At that point, I looked at her and said that she was no longer traveling by herself and that my co-workers and I would travel with her until she made it to her destination. We marveled at how sharp her mind was as she passionately shared her passion for Juneteenth as well as her first-of-the-year community dinner. Lee seemed like she was guided by an unyielding positivity and persistence. She embodies Hebrews 11:1 , “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Her belief in making Juneteenth has also led her to Washington DC, to host an ecumenical prayer breakfast, community festival, play and movie screening. I thought about this first encounter with Lee as I watched the excitement on her face as she stood next to President Joe Biden when he signed the Juneteenth federal holiday bill into a law. It was a breathtaking historical moment! Even more importantly, it showed the power of the faith of one person to make a difference in the lives of so many. Shewanda Riley is a Fort Worth, Texas based author of “Writing to the Beat of God’s Heart: A Book of Prayers for Writers.” Email her at [email protected] .