Opal Lee, ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth,’ raises the holiday flag in Philly

Opal Lee, 96, of Fort Worth, Texas, came to Philadelphia to mark the federal holiday she is credited with creating.

people watch as the flag gets raised.

The Juneteenth flag was ceremoniously raised at City Hall in Philadelphia on June 5, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Monday, the woman credited with making Juneteenth a national holiday, Opal Lee, was in Philadelphia to help raise the official Juneteenth flag at City Hall.

Called the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” the 96-year-old retired schoolteacher from Fort Worth, Texas, was given a citation by Philadelphia City Council and a proclamation from Mayor Jim Kenney marking the day as “Opal Lee Day.”

A closeup photo of Opal Lee
Juneteenth activist Opal Lee, 96, attended the raising of the Juneteenth flag on June 5, 2023, Opal Lee day in the City of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Good afternoon, young people,” Lee addressed the largely senior crowd. “And you’re all young people if you’re not 96.”

Lee has been an activist and community organizer since the 1970s. In 2016, at age 89, Lee started organizing walks in several cities of 2.5 miles each, representing the 2.5 years it took for news of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865.

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Opal Lee receiving a proclamation on stage
Juneteenth activist Opal Lee (right) reacts to the proclamation of June 5, 2023 as ‘Opal Lee Day’ in the City of Philadelphia, presented by Shelia Hess (left) on behalf of the mayor. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Her annual walks attracted thousands of followers, and ultimately the attention of lawmakers and President Joe Biden, who invited Lee to the White House when he declared Juneteenth to be a new federal holiday in 2021.

Last month, Lee’s alma mater North Texas University, from which she earned a master’s in teaching in 1963, awarded her with an honorary doctorate in recognition of her tireless social advocacy work.

At the Philadelphia flag-raising, Lee implored young people to get involved with their communities in pressing issues of the day.

“Joblessness, homelessness, health care that some of us can get and others can’t, and climate change that we are responsible for: if we don’t do something about it, we’re all going to hell in a handbasket,” she said. “It’s your responsibility and I ask that you not take it lightly.”

Opal Lee speaking at a podium
Opal Lee encourages young people to get involved in enacting change at Philadelphia’s Juneteenth flag raising at City Hall in Philadelphia, on June 5, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The diminutive Lee with a thin voice belying her age pounded her fist on the podium to make her point.

The two-hour flag-raising ceremony included drummers, singers from the Urban Guerilla Orchestra, a recitation of a work by poet Langston Hughes, and speeches about Juneteenth’s history and the unification of Philadelphia’s African, African American, and Caribbean population groups.

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Ava Brown reading on stage into a microphone
Ava Brown, 7, reads ‘Freedom’ by Langston Hughes at the raising of the Juneteenth flag at City Hall in Philadelphia, on June 5, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Juneteenth celebrations will take place in several locations on the weekend of June 17 and 18, including the Johnson House in Germantown on Saturday and a major parade and festival in West Philadelphia on Sunday at 52nd Street and Malcolm X Park.

The observed Juneteenth holiday falls on Monday, June 19.

The Juneteenth Singers performing
Vocalist Felicia Wilkins (right) leads the Juneteenth Singers at the raising of the Juneteenth flag at City Hall in Philadelphia on June 5, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Sometimes I still pinch myself to see if it happened,” Lee said. “I want you to know this: There’s so much we need to do. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

Looking to the future, Lee said a planned National Juneteenth Museum should be completed in Texas in 2025 pending a $70 million capital campaign, of which about $40 million has been raised.

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