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New Picture Book Teaches Children About Opal Lee, the 'Grandmother of Juneteenth'

African American grandfather listening to girl read book
A child and her grandfather read a book together. | Johnny Greig/Getty Images
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What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom from enslavement. Though the first observance of the day took place in 1866, it wasn't declared a federal holiday until 2021.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it released Black people from enslavement in the United States. But enslavers in Texas knew that it would take a long time for the news to reach enslaved people in the state. As Alice Faye Duncan wrote in "Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free," "freedom did not ring through Texas in 1863."

Opal lee and what it means to be free by Alice Faye Duncan book features an illustration of a little Black girl.
"Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free," by Alice Faye Duncan with art by Keturah A. Bobo

Enslaved people in Texas were forced to keep working without pay for two and half more years. Only when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to announce the end of slavery enslaved people claimed the freedom they had long fought for.

The book explains how formerly enslaved people declared the day a "jubilee" and celebrated with music, dancing and a feast of foods they used to cook for their enslavers but had not been allowed to enjoy themselves. The following year, the anniversary of the announcement was named "Juneteenth" (combining the words jubilee and nineteenth), and it became an annual festival.

Until the late 1900s, Juneteenth was primarily celebrated by Black Texans. Gradually, the holiday spread to other African American communities outside of the state and across the country.

Opal Lee, the 'Grandmother of Juneteenth'

During the racial uprising in the summer of 2020 spurred on by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many activists observed Juneteenth to emphasize the racism Black communities still face.

Around that time, children's book author Alice Faye Duncan first heard about Opal Lee, who had been campaigning for years to make Juneteenth a national holiday. It wasn't until the 2020 protests that her campaign received national media attention.

"In the middle of the George Floyd tragedy, it was her wise voice that lifted above the fires and fanned a spirit of peace," Duncan said. "Under the banner of Juneteenth, she encouraged all Americans to unite."

Alice Faye Duncan, a Black woman wearing green glasses and an orange blouse, smiles at the camera.
Alice Faye Duncan is the author of "Opal Lee and What it Means to Be Free." | Courtesy of Alice Faye Duncan

Duncan has created several picture books that teach children difficult parts of history through poetry, including a book about the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after the Memphis Sanitation Strive, told through the eyes of a child titled "Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968." Her latest book, "Evicted! The Struggle for the Right to Vote," chronicles the struggles of rural Tennessee sharecroppers to obtain the right to vote, which cost them their homes and jobs.

Reflecting on why she wanted to tell Lee's story, Duncan told Fox 32 Chicago, "When we want children to do brave things, we have to show them models of people doing brave things."

How Opal Lee Paved the Way for Juneteenth to Become a National Holiday

Lee's bravery and persistence shine throughout the picture book account of her life.

To write it, Duncan interviewed her and her friends and family and supplemented the interviews with Texas news articles of the 1930s and '40s. "The papers spirited me back in time to a segregated Texas that was Opal Lee's childhood," Duncan said.

The book opens at the Fort Worth Juneteenth Jamboree that Lee attends each year. Through a request from her great-grandson Buddy, children get to hear the story of the first Juneteenth.
When Buddy asks what Juneteenth was like when Grandmother Lee was a child, the children begin learning that racism did not end with slavery. Lee tells them that she both loved and hated the local zoo when she was a child because Juneteenth was the only day of the year when the Black residents of Fort Worth were allowed to enter its gates.

When we want children to do brave things, we have to show them models of people doing brave things.
Opal Lee

On June 19, 1939, tragedy struck Lee's family. An angry mob burned down her family's brand-new home, located in a mostly white neighborhood. Rather than intimidating Lee, the event strengthened her resolve to work for freedom.

After retiring from a teaching career in 1977, Opal Lee focused on volunteering for organizations that advocated for affordable housing and the preservation of Black history in Fort Worth, including the observance of Juneteenth.

Because Juneteenth is about freedom, she knew that the day was bigger than Texas. In 2016, at the age of 89, she took her campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday to the next level when she announced that she would walk from her Fort Worth home to Washington, D.C. Each day, she walked 2.5 miles to symbolize the two and a half years that Black Texans continued to live in slavery after they were supposed to be emancipated. Along the way, she collected more than 1.5 million signatures on a petition that called on Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

While some people call Lee the Grandmother of Juneteenth, she often refers to herself as "just a little old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody's business."

'We Aren't Free Yet!'

During the racial uprising of 2020, Lee reflected on the meaning of Juneteenth. "We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we're all free, and we aren't free yet," she said in an interview with The New York Times. She pointed to disparities in education, jobs and health care as examples.

As children learn about Juneteenth, Duncan said she hopes they connect the celebration of freedom to today's issues. "The struggle for the right to vote remains a crisis for all Americans," she said. She said she hopes that her books will help young people understand that "if democracy is to survive, it will be because they saved it."

This year on Juneteenth, Duncan will read her book at the annual Juneteenth Jubilee in her hometown of Memphis. Opal Lee will lead a 2.5-mile walk for freedom in Fort Worth.

Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth With Kids

There are many ways families can celebrate Juneteenth, whether they attend a community festival or not.

Duncan encouraged families to hold a Juneteenth celebration at home or in a local park with others. Children can invite elders who can share their own stories of determination and bravery.

Kids can also help adults select the menu or make food for the event. Red punch and other red foods, like watermelon, are the centerpiece of Juneteenth meals.

Including a children's story time in your Juneteenth celebration helps families explore the history and meaning of the holiday together. Good kid books to read aloud include:

Music and dancing are fun additions to any celebration. Families can create a Juneteenth playlist of freedom songs from the past and present. A few song ideas include:

"Sesame Street: Let's Celebrate Juneteenth Song | Power of We Club."
Sesame Street: Let's Celebrate Juneteenth Song | Power of We Club

Kids can check out Wee Nation Radio, an online children's radio station featuring R&B, hip hop, and world music, for more music ideas.

Children can also create decorations for the celebration, such as a Juneteenth flag. The flag includes several symbols and shapes that children can explore with adults' help.

Families can support Opal Lee's Walk for Freedom, which will raise funds for a national Juneteenth museum, by registering to walk on their own or joining a simultaneous walk during Lee's walk in Fort Worth, including one in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Pacoima. Families can also register to walk on their own.

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