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Opal Lee Sparkles with Her Own Brand of Advocacy

Grandmother of Juneteenth' delights SHRM audience with passionate storytelling

An older woman giving a speech at a podium.

LAS VEGAS — Special guest activist Opal Lee stole the show at the Sept. 11 general session of the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021 (SHRM21), delivering her memorable brand of impassioned advocacy that led to Juneteenth (June 19) being declared a federal holiday.

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, was more than happy to give up the stage to Lee, about to turn 95, who shared firsthand experiences of racial segregation, adversity and persevering to have Juneteenth recognized. (See SHRM’s Taylor Calls for HR to Practice ‘Radical Empathy’.)

Lee worked for decades petitioning U.S. presidents to declare June 19 a federal holiday. On June 17, 2021, the Fort Worth, Texas, resident was at the White House to witness President Joe Biden sign into law that Juneteenth would be recognized as such.

Lee had been advocating for Juneteenth's observance for more than 40 years. In 2016, she launched Opal's Walk 2 D.C.—a 1,400-mile trek to petition Congress and President Barack Obama's administration to grant the holiday official status.

At age 89, she walked 2.5 miles each day to symbolize the 2.5 years Black Texans waited between the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the law.

June 19 was also the day in 1939 that the home her parents bought in a mostly white area of Fort Worth was burned to the ground by 500 white rioters. Lee was 12 at the time. Recalling it years later, she said, "The fact that it happened on the 19th day of June has spurred me to make people understand that Juneteenth is not just a festival."

Lee, known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," said it's a day that all should hold dear to their hearts because "no one is free until we all are free."

A lifelong worker, Lee was a babysitter, then teacher, then guidance counselor until she retired. "Then I found more work to do," she said. Lee works to help organize food banks and manages food trucks in her native Texas.

She encouraged the audience to take lessons learned during SHRM21 and put them into action at their workplaces. "Please don't make what happened to you here 'stay in Vegas,' as they say," Lee said.

Tamila Maxwell, director of HR at EIS Agency in Atlanta, said, "She's a great example of what you can do when you have that drive to move forward, no matter what, and no one can stop you. She inspired me to remember to always dream big, because anything is attainable."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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