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Meet Opal Lee, the woman who helped make Juneteenth a federal holiday

All across the country Monday, Americans are observing Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery. When President Joe Biden signed a bill last year making Juneteenth a federal holiday in the United States, one woman captured well-deserved attention. 

Opal Lee, 94, was described by Biden as the “grandmother of the movement” to help make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday. In 2016, 89-year-old Lee, a former teacher and lifelong activist, walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to the nation’s capital in an effort to get Juneteenth named a national holiday.

Every year on June 19 Lee walks 2 1/2 miles to mark the time that passed between President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and when the news arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. This year Lee was joined by a host of residents, visitors and supporters. 

At the time of bill signing on June 17, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president, also gave Lee her due, saying, “And looking out across this room, I see the advocates, the activists, the leaders who have been calling for this day for so long, including the one and only Ms. Opal Lee.”

“I was overjoyed. I was ecstatic,” Lee told ABC News last year of her reaction to the holiday being signed into law. “I was so happy I could have done a holy dance.”

Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day — is celebrated on June 19 to mark the day when African American slaves in Galveston, Texas, were among the last to be told they had been freed two months after the Civil War officially ended.

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