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Ms. Opal Lee, Grandmother of Juneteenth

Many of us know why we celebrate Juneteenth. But do you know the grandmother of Juneteenth—Ms. Opal Lee?

Ms. Opal Lee’s life personifies the ideologies of Juneteenth:

  • While acknowledging that the struggle is not over, Juneteenth celebrates progress while recognizing ongoing struggles.
  • Juneteenth calls us all to action to ensure racial justice and equity are available to all.

A little about Opal Lee.

A native Texan, Opal Lee is the oldest of 3 children. She and her family lived with family friends in servants’ quarters in a whites-only neighborhood before moving to a new home in a predominantly white neighborhood when she was 12 years old. White rioters vandalized and burned the home on June 19, 1939.

The destruction of her home on Juneteenth ignited her lifelong activism. Remarkably, over 80 years later, her family home was returned to her.

Opal attended Wiley College and worked several jobs to help pay tuition and support her 4 children. In 1952, she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She taught elementary school for 25 years. She served as a visiting teacher, identifying barriers to school attendance like housing, clothing, food and more.

Ms. Lee campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a national holiday. In 2016, She walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. She walked in 2.5 miles segments to symbolize the 2.5 years it took for news of the emancipation proclamation to reach Texas slaves.

On June 17, 2021, Opal’s dream came true when President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday.  Ms. Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 4, 2024, for her activism. She continues to hold her Juneteenth Walk for Freedom and the National Juneteenth Museum is expected to open in her hometown Forth Worth in 2026.

The fight for racial justice

Nationally, the fight against racism is paving the way for improved health outcomes by enhancing access to healthcare, education, housing, and economic opportunities for Black and Brown Americans.

In Pierce County, we are addressing disparities such as life expectancy, birth outcomes, rates of diseases like diabetes, involvement in the criminal justice system, violence, and civic engagement among marginalized communities.

Acknowledging these challenges, the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health declared racism a public health crisis in June 2020. We are dedicated to transforming inequitable systems and structures to ensure everyone can achieve their fullest health potential.

Our agency and community partners are united in this essential work. Learn more about our efforts and how you can get involved at tpchd.org/racialequity.

Together, we strive for justice and healing in our community.

“Even though there’s still much work to be done, we have to celebrate the freedom that we have,” Ms. Opal Lee said. “That’s what Juneteenth is about: Celebrating freedom every step of the way!”