Kansas governor recognizes ‘little lady in tennis shoes’ advocating for national Juneteenth holiday

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TOPEKA — Each year since 2016, when she was 89, Opal Lee has walked from her home in Fort Worth across the country, stopping everywhere from Washington, D.C. to North Carolina to Kansas, in an effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Each day of her “Juneteenth Road to Unity” tour, Lee walks two and a half miles to symbolize the two and a half years that Black Texans waited between the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1863, and when that message reached Galveston, where Black people were still enslaved. While the holiday to commemorate the end of slavery has gained support in recent years, Lee said she will not stop walking until its recognized nationally.

The 2021 iteration of her walking tour kicked off Friday in Topeka, where she was recognized by Gov. Laura Kelly for her “tireless” activism. Lee, now 95, said she was humbled to receive such recognition as she continues her push for the holiday.

“I thought if a little lady in tennis shoes started walking that somebody would notice and they did,” Lee said. “I’m asking anybody and everybody to give us you support because none of us are free until we are all free.”

Lee’s efforts have brought scores of people on board in support of national recognition for Juneteenth. In 2020, her petition reached about 1.5 million signatures. This year, Lee is encouraging people to join in support again to express to federal lawmakers the importance of enshrining this day in statute.

This year her tour will take her from Topeka to South Carolina to Evanston, Illinois.

Efforts in D.C are already underway this year as lawmakers in both the Senate and House reintroduced the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Lee was on hand to push for the legislation, which she said came as a welcome surprise to her.

Last year, many companies decided to make Juneteenth a day off for employees and 47 states already have Juneteenth celebrations, Lee said. She said every day her vision comes closer to becoming a reality.

Her work was recognized Tuesday as Kelly proclaimed April 23, 2021, as Opal Lee Day throughout Kansas. The governor praised Lee’s efforts to raise awareness for an “incredibly significant” day.

Kelly said she would support the idea of making Juneteenth a state holiday.

“Opal, I am inspired by your dedication and your passion. You are making a difference,” Kelly said. “We recognize her persistence, enthusiasm and commitment to being a community organizer and leading the push for change.”

Lee was invited by The Topeka Family and Friends Juneteenth Celebration Inc. for the proclamation along with a “Unity Walk” from the steps of the Kansas State Capitol at 10 a.m., Saturday.

TFFJC had hoped to have Lee visit in 2020 but the pandemic pushed those plans back a year, said Norma Avery, a founder of Topeka’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

“It’s been a great honor that she took the time to come here,” Avery said. “We are happy that people are really reaching out to her about how important Juneteenth is to them.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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