58°F
weather icon Clear

Woman, 93, in Las Vegas to spread Juneteenth message of unity

Opal Lee has a story to tell, and the 93-year-old hopes that 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are listening.

She travels across the country from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to lead marches and to tell people about Juneteenth, a little-known day of celebration encompassing over 150 years of history that ought not be forgotten.

“And I thought if a little old lady about 92 or 93 years old was doing that walk, somebody would pay attention,” Lee said Thursday morning before kicking off a walk down the Fremont Street Experience with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

Juneteenth celebrates June 19th, 1865, the day Union soldiers rode into Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after it went into effect in January 1863. Slaves in Texas had been free but didn’t know it.

“And when we found out about it, we started celebrating and we’ve been celebrating ever since,” Lee said.

Lee, who is on the foundation’s board of directors, is working to make Juneteenth a national observance day, like Flag Day, which would require Congress to pass legislation adding it to the national calendar.

She set her sights on Las Vegas because it hosted Wednesday’s Democratic debate, and Nevada’s caucuses are Saturday. Lee said she’s trying to spread the message of Juneteenth to presidential hopefuls so that no matter who gets the nomination, they’ll know about the day.

“Juneteenth is a unifier,” Lee said. “We’re not trying to make people or have them blamed for anything. We’re saying that we’re wasting time when we could unite and get so much done.”

More than a day

Steve Williams, president of the Juneteenth foundation, explained that June 19 celebrations are about more than the date in 1865.

The story of Juneteenth starts three years to the day before the actual date it commemorates. Congress passed legislation to abolish slavery in the United States on June 19, 1862, ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth also has roots in Oklahoma, which has a long history of celebrations by black residents who moved to the territory before it became a state, Williams said.

The Civil Rights Act was passed in the Senate on June 19, 1964. And the Poor People’s March on Washington, organized by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination, took place in June 1968.

“So the discussion that we want to be about,” Williams said, “is how has America changed since then?”

All things Juneteenth

As Lee walked the Fremont Street Experience, she and and handful of supporters carried signs and chanted “All things Juneteenth!”

She stopped tourists, street performers and workers to hand out flyers about the campaign. After handing one to a shirtless Chippendale performer, she looked back at the group with a wide grin.

It’s not her first attempt to turn Juneteenth into a national holiday, but Lee fears it could be her last. That’s why she’s pushing as hard as she can to get it recognized in 2020.

In 2016, Lee traveled to Washington, D.C., where she hoped to meet with President Barack Obama.

“He was in Chicago. It didn’t happen. I didn’t get what I wanted,” she said. “But I haven’t given up, so I’ve started again.”

After the walk, Lee rested briefly at the Plaza but kept leaving her seat to talk to young people in the lobby.

“I hold out hope, because there’s so many people I come in contact with who’ve never heard of Juneteenth,” Lee said. “And so we’ve got a tremendous educational job to do, and I’m hoping the young people will take it up.”

Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Cars line up for over 4 miles for food
Cars were lined up along Sahara Avenue from Palace Station to South Rainbow Boulevard for food distribution sponsored by Three Square and Central Church in Henderson.
Two large fires hit parts of the Las Vegas Valley - VIDEO
Renee Summerour wraps up the two large fire that hit part of the Las Vegas Valley Late Wednesday , early morning Thursday. RJ reporter Glenn Puit was at both scenes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas hotels light up their windows to show support during shutdown - VIDEO
Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip lit up their windows with hearts and messages to show support during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday night, April 1. (Le'Andre Fox and James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Isolation and quarantine center for homeless at Cashman Center - VIDEO
A new isolation and quarantine center for homeless is under construction at the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas, March 31. (K.M Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Day care changes hours and takes extra steps to help guardians - VIDEO
Sarah Washington, whose children attend Discovery Gardens Childcare, shares the importance of the facility’s hour changes, and child care director Ariella Thomas discusses some other changes Discovery Gardens Childcare has made, in Las Vegas on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Elipagephoto
Costco reduces hours at Las Vegas Valley stores, gasoline pumps - VIDEO
Costco announced it will reduce hours at its stores and gas pumps starting Monday. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate apparent murder-suicide
Las Vegas police investigate an apparent murder-suicide in the 3900 block of Chasing Heart Way on Saturday, March 28, 2020. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Homeless outreach organization feeds people in age of social distancing - VIDEO
Homeless outreach organization Food Not Bombs handed out sack lunches, hygiene kits and blankets on Foremaster Lane in Las Vegas, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, which has temporarily closed its dining room and emergency night shelter, also handed out to-go lunches on Foremaster Lane. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada gets an A for social distancing
In an interactive Scoreboard by tech company Unacast, organizations can measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada construction continues as coronavirus spreads
When Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered Nevada businesses closed, he let construction workers stay on the job, deeming homebuilding and other construction “essential” lines of work.
Pedestrian struck, killed in western Las Vegas Valley crash - VIDEO
Las Vegas police are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed in a crash Wednesday night in the west valley. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate fatal crash in east Las Vegas - VIDEO
Las Vegas police said a pedestrian was killed when they were hit by a vehicle near Sloan Lane and of East Charleston Boulevard on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Seeing teachers at a distance, closed parks and lack of toilet paper - VIDEO
The neighboring towns of Logandale and Overton, northeast of Las Vegas, are experiencing the effects of coronavirus, with closed schools and playgrounds and fewer items in grocery stores. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas residents enjoy the snow at Lee Canyon - VIDEO
Las Vegas residents get out to enjoy the snow at Lee Canyon on Mount Charleston. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Post office stays open amidst shutdown - VIDEO
Mail delivery and services at post offices continues despite the coronavirus crisis. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 person dies in east Las Vegas fire - VIDEO
One person and a dog were found dead after a fire in a detached structure adjacent to a house near East Monroe Avenue and North Betty Lane in east Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Albertsons, Walmart, Amazon increase pay amid coronavirus impact - VIDEO
Grocery stores and other retailers have raised employee pay as they work to meet customer demand during the coronavirus pandemic. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
High winds move clouds across the Las Vegas Valley - Time-lapse video
Isolated showers depart when gusty winds move in probably remain through Wednesday, March 25, when another storm front is expected. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Downtown's Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign moving to Neon Museum - VIDEO
Yesco workers remove the Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard on Monday, March 23, 2020. The sign, which has been at the location for five years, will be displayed at the Neon Museum. A museum representative said a replacement neon sign is in the works. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Distance Learning challenges for Clark County School District - VIDEO
Renee Summerour sits down with RJ reporter Aleksandra Appleton to discuss the challenges the Clark County School District is facing with Distance Learning, a program that was slated to begin Monday, March 23. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Deliver with Dignity will give 100 families meals today - VIDEO
“Deliver with Dignity” was created “to bring high-quality meals directly to the most vulnerable families in the Las Vegas Valley, keeping them and the community safe by reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.” (Facebook/Clark County)
CCSD board holds an emergency meeting on Distance Learning - VIDEO
The Clark County School Board held an emergency meeting on Monday morning, the day that distance learning was supposed to begin at all schools in Nevada. (Clark County School District)
Las Vegas Valley residents make medical masks for health care workers - VIDEO
Anissa Gustafson has spent most of her week sewing masks in an effort to assist health care workers in the Las Vegas Valley who are running out because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coronavirus patients could inundate hospitals - VIDEO
RJ Investigations reporter Michael S. Davidson talks about how a rapid influx of coronavirus patients could soon inundate Nevada hospitals, pushing them past their capacity and threatening health care workers’ safety. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
M Resort donates food surplus to workers - VIDEO
The M Resort donated a surplus of perishable food supplies to team members after the closure of the hotel due to a shutdown of nonessential businesses in Nevada, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Costco reserved earliest hour for seniors - VIDEO
People line up outside Costco in Henderson after the store reserved earliest hour for seniors on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
2 pedestrians injured after being hit by vehicle - VIDEO
Two men were injured when they were hit by a car on Warm Springs Road near Bruce Street in southeast Las Vegas on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas shopping lines still long - VIDEO
Senior shoppers line up at 7 a.m. outside of Smith's Marketplace on Skye Canyon Park Drive in northwest Las Vegas, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dos and Dont's: Cleaning your smartphone of germs - VIDEO
Check out the dos and dont's for cleaning your phone of germs. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
More Las Vegas Valley grocery stores offer early hours for seniors - VIDEO
A growing list of Las Vegas Valley retailers are offering special shopping hours for seniors in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Missing hiker's sister on staying hopeful - Video
Karsta Lucas, the sister of Ronnie Lucas, a hiker missing at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, said Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, that family members remain hopeful the 33-year-old diabetic will be found safe despite spending two nights in the open without his insulin. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search continues for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Volunteers come out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas to help find a hiker, Ronnie Lucas, who went missing on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Red Rock Search & Rescue is looked for the missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on Monday, Feb. 10, 2010. The man was reported missing on Sunday. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas ready to enforce homeless camping ban - VIDEO
Las Vegas police will begin enforcing a controversial camping ban on city streets on Saturday, but officials say they expect to impose the penalties available under the new ordinance only in rare instances. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officials celebrate opening of Las Vegas park named for slain officer - Video
Top public officials came together Friday morning to celebrate the grand opening of Officer Alyn Beck Memorial Park in the northwest valley, named after a police officer killed in the line of duty in 2014. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wrong-way driver causes fatal crash near Las Vegas airport, authorities say - VIDEO
A suspected impaired motorist driving the wrong way on the Airport Connector caused a crash that killed another driver near McCarran International Airport early Friday morning, Jan. 17, 2020, according to law enforcement. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The car that Tupac was shot in is for sale - VIDEO
The vehicle that legendary rapper Tupac Shakur was riding in when he was shot after a boxing match in Las Vegas is up for auction. The black 1996 BMW 7 Series is listed by Celebrity Cars Las Vegas for $1.75 million. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST