Community members gathered Sunday afternoon at the West Las Vegas Arts Center to hear from Opal Lee and Helen Anderson Toland, in an event that served as an early Juneteenth celebration.
Lee, a longtime advocate for Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S., to become a federal holiday, and Toland, the first Black woman to serve as a Clark County School District principal, took part in a conversation hosted by Juneteenth Nevada and other local groups.
Before an audience of about 20, both women spoke for roughly an hour-and-a-half about their upbringings and their long careers. Toland talked about moving from Missouri to Springfield, Illinois during her childhood and learning more about her community and the world.
“My aunt, who had taught school in Missouri, when she came to live in Springfield, could only get a job as a restroom person in a factory,” she said during the event that also was recorded on video by Blusoul Productions. “The lines were really drawn. And I really didn’t know much about what went on in the world or in business or in stores until I went to college.”
Lee talked about her annual two and a half mile walk, which represents the two and a half years it took news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865.
“Freedom is for everybody,” Lee said. “I’m talking about not Black people, not Texas people, I’m talking about freedom is for everyone. And we need to be about the business of passing that message on. I tell people, ‘make yourself a committee of one.’”
As the conversation drew to a close, Rep. Steven Horsford presented the two women with congressional recognitions, noting that he was also in the room with Lee when Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.
“Not only is she the daughter of Texas, she is the grandmother of the Juneteenth movement. And she has led this movement across the country, from Texas to the Capitol and now right here in Las Vegas,” he said. “And I wanted to come by to just add my words of thanks to both of you.”