Inspiration. Bravery. Passion. Advocacy. Activism. Charity.
These are a few words that come to mind when I think of Ms. Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” At almost 95 years young, she owned the stage at #SHRM21 in Las Vegas and had the audience gripped by her stories about growing up in Texas, and her dream of Juneteenth being celebrated as a national holiday. On June 17, 2021, that dream was realized as she watched President Biden sign the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, commemorating June 19, 1865, the day that Union forces arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln had issued on January 1, 1962, over two years prior.
She greeted the audience with an enthusiastic, “Hello, young people! And you are young people if you’re not 95!”
Ms. Opal Lee shared how in 1939, when she was about 12 years old, her parents bought a house in a mostly white neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas. A mob of 500 destroyed that house. Her parents sent her and her siblings to stay with friends a few blocks away, and her parents left “under the cover of darkness.” That was on June 19th, a day that was a big deal in Marshall, Texas – as big as Christmas, she described, with fairs and parades and food (“and food and food”)! But it wasn’t a big deal in Fort Worth. She was surprised as she got older how most of the country had never heard of Juneteenth, and how it became her passion to make Juneteenth a national celebration. She was often asked, “Isn’t July 4th the day we celebrate freedom?” She would say in return, “My ancestors weren’t free on no 4th of July!” She feels that freedom should be celebrated from June 19 to July 4 because “none of us are free until we’re all free.”
Ms. Opal Lee has worked for over six decades – as a babysitter, teacher, school counselor. Even after she retired, she continued to work, starting a food bank that serves over 500 people. She’s seen drastic changes over the 60 years she has worked, but she has also seen older people brushed aside because people think they’re too old to work. Why would anyone work beyond retirement age? “Because we still have knowledge and ideas to contribute. Work brings us dignity and purpose, and it keeps us sharp.”
She acknowledged being in a room full of HR professionals, and humorously declared, “I am an HR Trifecta: I’m a woman. I’m Black. And I’m old.” She passionately articulated how diversity and inclusion is about making sure that everyone finds a place and a voice in companies where people can reach their full potential regardless of where they started in life.
After thousands of attendees returned to their homes and places of business, after the conference stage has been disassembled and stored away for the next big event, Ms. Opal Lee’s words still ring: “If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”
She challenged each of us to take what we have learned back to our workplaces. “Please don’t let what happened here in Vegas stay in Vegas!”
As Ms. Opal Lee pointed out, we’ve come a long way. But we have a long way yet to go. “Change is possible if we just hold the course.”