DJ McAnney // WDEL
The "Grandmother of Juneteenth" witnessed her dream, of seeing the day slaves were emancipated in America named a holiday, become a reality in Delaware Wednesday.
"Mother Opal Lee, you are appreciated, you're loved, and today, Delaware will have Juneteenth as a paid state holiday due to your work," said Democratic state Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker. "Thank you and God bless you."
Lee has long been an advocate for the recognition of June 19th, the day in 1865 when slaves learned slavery was outlawed in Texas, the last holdout following President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation stating as much on January 1, 1863.
In 2016, Lee decided she would begin walking two-and-a-half miles every day to represent that 2.5-year disparity.
"When we try to understand the problems in our society, I say our problem is we don't know our history. And in America, we don't know African American history. And if you don't know African American history, you really don't know American history at all," said Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki. "There are a lot of people who talk that talk. Not many people walk it, and you figuratively, and literally, have walked it."
Presenting Lee a key to the city as part of the ceremony at Wilmington's Congo Legacy Center leading up to Gov. John Carney's signing of House Bill 119, which declares June 19th an official state holiday, Purzycki had one more offering up his sleeve to honor her.
"One thing that I can do, that everybody else cannot do, is declared today Opal Lee Day in Wilmington," the mayor said to cheering and applause.
For her part, Lee passed along a message that the struggles were not over, but that the only way to overcome anything is to do so together. The night prior, she spread that same message to a crowd gathered at the University of Delaware.
"We don't want to stop now that we have Juneteenth as a national holiday. We've got so much to do, and it's left entirely up to you young people to do it--now, you see, anybody under 95 is a young person," she said. "I don't want you to make yourself a committee of one. You know people who aren't on the same page you're on. You've got to change their mind. You've got to make them understand that working together gets us much farther, much faster."
Everything from joblessness, to homelessness, to the school-to-prison pipeline, to healthcare access, and even climate change were counted among the disparities America faces in its journey to unity, Lee said.
"We've got to eradicate these things--and they can be eradicated. We simply have to remember that we are our brother's keeper," she said. "So I'm leaving it up to you. Well, when I say that, I'll be around awhile, and I'm going to monitor what you're doing."
While it was important to have elected officials making the legislative progress to achieve the goal of providing Juneteenth the recognition it deserves, Wilmington City Council President Ernest "Trippi" Congo said the community will play an even more integral role.
"As elected officials, we do have our responsibilities and our role in making change, but the real responsibility and the real power is with you all," Congo said. "This is evidenced right here, by this wonderful lady, that there's so much for our entire country so just imagine we can do if we just stick together and unify."
Lee's work had already taken her to Washington, D.C., where her campaign to have Juneteenth officially on the books achieved federal status on June 18, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed it into law. It's also already been recognized as a paid holiday in the city where Purzycki declared as such on November 20, 2020. Prior to signing the legislation that instituted a statewide declaration, Carney said just meeting Lee was an honor.
"[And] it's really my honor to sign the legislation that makes Juneteenth a holiday here in the state of Delaware, and to honor you and the work--and all the footsteps--that you have taken across our country to bring this message to every American, and every Delawarean," said Carney. "This message of freedom, and togetherness, and oneness."