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Fort Worth, Opal Lee celebrate first nationally recognized Juneteenth holiday

June 19,2021

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by David Silva Ramirez here.

Hundreds walked from Evans Avenue Plaza to the Tarrant County Courthouse in downtown Fort Worth on Saturday to celebrate a historic Juneteenth day.

The walk was something of a double celebration. People gathered to commemorate Juneteenth itself, a day that recognizes the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. But they also gathered to celebrate the fact that Juneteenth had finally become a federal holiday, and that it all happened because of the efforts of Fort Worth activist Opal Lee.

For decades, the 94-year-old Lee advocated to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday.

She raised money, started petitions and, in 2016, at the age of 89, walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to the celebration. She has continued to walk two and a half miles annually.

On Thursday, five years after she made that initial journey, Lee stood alongside President Joe Biden as he signed a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Lee was given an ovation at the White House and posed next to the president and members of Congress as the bill became law.

But Lee said she isn’t quite ready to call her two-and-a-half-mile walk a victory lap just yet.

“We’re going to tackle housing,” she said. “We’re going to tackle joblessness ... We’re going to tackle health care, and we’re going to tackle climate change.”

When Juneteenth arrived Saturday in Fort Worth and Lee prepared for her walk, she encountered a gathering much different than the one of years past.

The party started early, around 8 a.m., with food, music, guest speakers and hundreds of people at the Evans Avenue Plaza in Historic Southside.

Lee arrived as a celebrity, her vehicle immediately crowded by people and cameras. She was escorted to the nearby Fort Worth Association of Federated Women’s Clubs building before the walk.

The walk began around 10 a.m. The 2.5 mile stretch, each mile representing each year it took for enslaved Texans to be freed after the Emancipation Proclamation, ran along East Pennsylvania Avenue, crossed Interstate 35W and on South Main Street toward downtown.

Walkers, enduring 90-plus degree heat, wore shirts bearing an image of Lee or emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” or highlighting one of the dozens of Black organizations that participated. Behind them were dozens of trailers, trucks and cars adorned with Juneteenth imagery.

At the last leg of the route, along Commerce Street in downtown, employees and patrons of businesses stood outside, took photos and video of the crowd, and joined along with the group’s chant: “Opal Lee!”

Fort Worth Opera partnered with Unity Unlimited, producer of Opal Lee’s Annual Juneteenth Celebration and 2.5-mile walk, for a concert in front of Bass Performance Hall and the lawn of the Tarrant County Courthouse as part of the festivities.

Arlington resident Anastasia Clark said the federal holiday designation is a big deal, but she’s also excited to see that not just Black individuals are acknowledging and celebrating the day.

“It’s one thing to celebrate as a culture, but for others to acknowledge it as allies and advocates it big,” she said.

Location Mentioned: Tarrant County Courthouse