In a special bonus episode, recorded a day before Juneteenth was made a federal holiday, we listen in on a conversation between Opal Lee, an activist and teacher often called the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” and Harvard University professors Annette Gordon-Reed and Evelyn Hammonds.
Opal Lee, Activist
Annette Gordon-Reed, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard University; author, On Juneteenth
Evelynn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and Professor of African and African-American Studies, Harvard University
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Anna Fisher-Pinkert: From the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – this is Better Off, a podcast about the biggest public health problems we face today . . .
Opal Lee: It’s such a pity that folk had to lose their lives for us to give attention to what should be our birthright.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: . . . and the people innovating to create public health solutions.
Annette Gordon-Reed: History should not just be about the good things that happened in the past. It has to be about all the things that happened in the past.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: I’m your host, Anna Fisher-Pinkert.
We’ve been on a little break the last few weeks, but don’t worry, new episodes of Better Off are coming soon.
This week… we’re doing something a little bit different. We’re going to focus on Juneteenth – which was celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time this year. Now, this may seem like a departure for a podcast about public health – but as we discussed in our last episode with Mary Bassett – it’s impossible to understand health disparities in the United States if we don’t understand the history of racism and how it impacts Americans’ lives.
Today’s conversation was recorded on June 16, one day before President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth – which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. – the 12th federal holiday.
You’ll hear from three remarkable women: Evelyn Hammonds is the moderator of this conversation. She is the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and Professor of African and African-American Studies, Harvard University.
Professor Hammonds is joined by two guests who have roots in Texas – the state where Juneteenth celebrations originated.
Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University and author of the book “On Juneteenth.”
Ms. Opal Lee is a teacher and activist who has been instrumental in the fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She’s often called the “grandmother” of Juneteenth.
The first voice you’ll hear is Evelyn Hammonds, speaking to Ms. Opal.
Evelyn Hammonds: Ms. Opal, for those of us who still don’t have a really kind of intimate familiarity with Juneteenth, can you talk a little bit about the holiday and how it came to be and certainly how it came for you to be a part of it?
Opal Lee: Well, I think lots of people are aware now that a general, Gordon Granger, made his way to Galveston with some 7,000 colored troops. They were from Illinois and New York and he had and read General Order No. 3. That said all the slaves were free. He even nailed that general order to the door of what’s now Reedy Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and when the enslaved came in from work and somebody read that to them. . . We started celebrating, and we’ve been celebrating ever since. Now for me, in Marshall, Texas, we’d go to the fairgrounds. There’ be ball games, and food. There’d be music, and food. There’d be friends and family, and food. Oh, what a time we had.
Evelyn Hammonds: Annette, in your book, you write very personally about your own experiences growing up in Texas and what makes the state’s history so unique. And you wrote, “The things that happened there couldn’t have happened in other places. Non-Texans could never really understand what the events that took place in Texas actually meant. So tell us what you meant about that.
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I was I was talking about, in some ways, Texas’s own outsized sense of itself. Our chauvinism about being Texans. And that’s how I felt: That we were raised to think that we were special, and that special things happened in this particular place, and other places didn’t have all that. And that’s, you know, every place has . . . now that I’m grown, I realize that every place has its own history, its own stories and so forth. But I mean, it is different and very much American. One of the other things I say in the book is that Texas has all of the sort of major currents of American history going through it: Westward expansion, the conflict between indigenous people and Europeans, plantation slavery, Jim Crow after that. It borders a foreign country, Mexico, and so immigration is an issue. And the Latino-Anglo and Latino-indigenous conflict, all of it in that one place. This is a state that didn’t have to become diverse. It began that way. It starts out that way. And yet I think when most people think about Texas, from what I’ve been able to gather, they think of white people. They think of a white man. That’s what I say. Texas is constructed as a white man. So what does that mean for people like me? You know, Ms. Lee, me, and others who are not white men. But we’re Texans. And my family, parts of it, have been there since the 1820’s. People think of it as the cowboy, even though there were Black cowboys, obviously. But Hollywood’s version of the cowboy, a white man, or an oil man, both white. And that that that image of Texas is out there. But it’s a very diverse, very complicated place.
Evelyn Hammonds: Miss Lee, Miss Opal, I should say, you also grew up in Texas. You grew up celebrating Juneteenth with your family every year and especially the food. So tell us more about what it was like. I mean, can you give us one very vivid memory you have about the celebrations?
Opal Lee: People sort of celebrated together, you know, their families and that sort of thing. I had a mentor, Lenora Rolla, and she started the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, and that group’s responsible for the Juneteenth celebration. Well, we had a celebration to die for. It was in a tiny little park called Sycamore Park. We had three thousand people . . .
Evelyn Hammonds: My goodness.
Opal Lee: The paper said in a three day period, ten thousand people a day. Oh, but did we have fun. Well, the park’s supposed to close at ten and all they did was to pull the plug that turned the lights off. That meant we were supposed to go home. Why did I get on a flatbed truck and put that plug back in part party till dawn!
Evelyn Hammonds: Annette, you know, Juneteenth kind of remains for many people, a kind of complicated holiday. What do you think it remains complicated?
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, I think it’s complicated because we know what happened, right? I mean, that’s the thing about history and historians, and people looking back on history. We understand. We know the road ahead. So I think what people do is look back and say, “well, you know, it was still hard after that.” We know that after a brief moment through Reconstruction, the redeeming white governments brought in Jim Crow and tried to bring things back as near to slavery as they could get it. Slavery was a system of social control. And once that legal basis for that kind of control was gone, they tried to find other ways to do that. And, you know, were almost successful, pretty successful. Debt peonage, voter restrictions, all those kinds of things. I mean, I think there’s a tendency . . . We don’t want people to run away with this idea that everything was okay. We know it wasn’t. My father, who could be quite sarcastic, would say, “The slaves haven’t been freed.” What he meant was, we still have a way to go with all of this. But I mean, he knew he wasn’t being made to work sunup to sundown for somebody else, or being sold. I wasn’t sold away from him, those kinds of things. But what he really meant was that there’s celebration, but always with this eye towards the future and a continued struggle. So I think that’s a complication. Even yesterday when they made this announcement and it became really well known. I saw on my Twitter feed people sort of not pooh poohing it, but saying, well, you know, what about reparations? What about this? What about that? Yeah, yeah, yeah. What about voting rights? Well, yeah. I mean, sure, they could do that unanimously for this holiday, but voting rights, those are two separate things, right? I mean, they’re linked in terms of history. But in terms of the political calculations, you should never think that the people who voted for this would necessarily vote for the other thing. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate and be happy about this particular thing that happened and that it has its own valence, its own importance.
Evelyn Hammonds: So Ms. Opal, I want to ask you what drove you to make your life’s work be about helping to make Juneteenth a national holiday?
Opal Lee: Oh, I think I was about 89 and I got to fussing and thinking I hadn’t done enough. And so I made up my mind that I was going to do something, come hell or high water. And what I decided was that I would walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. And I felt like if a little old lady in tennis shoes was walking to D.C., somebody would take notice. I got myself, my minister, the church musicians, a county commissioner, school board member, and several – we all gathered at my church. And they gave me a sendoff and I walked two and a half miles. The next morning I get up and I start where I left off, two and a half miles. I was actually going to go the 1,400 miles. So if I started September 2016, I actually got to Washington January 2017, when I asked President Obama to work with us. But he was in Chicago. Oh, goodness. I get what I want. I say that. Keep on walking and I’ll keep on talking to Juneteenth. Made a national holiday.
Evelyn Hammonds: Gosh, it’s such an inspiring story. And your quest to make Juneteenth a national holiday has really made you a star in your own right.
Opal Lee: And I don’t want people to think Juneteenth is just one day. There is too much educational components. We have too much to do. I even advocate that we do Juneteenth, that we celebrate freedom, from the 19th of June to the 4th of July. Because we weren’t free on the 4th of July, 1776. That would be celebrating freedom, you understand, if we were able to do that.
Evelyn Hammonds: Did the Black Lives Matter movement have any impact on you in terms of thinking about this last point, about celebrating freedom from, say, June 19th to July 4th? Is that something that has played a part in your thinking about this this holiday and it being a national holiday?
Opal Lee: Yes. In fact, if I was younger, I would have been right up there with those young people. You know, we have surges. Dr. King brought us forward. The March on Washington brought us forward. Black Lives Matter is doing its part to bring us forward. Yes. Any of the groups. Nothing has ever been given to us. We’ve had to push for everything we get. And I remind those young people, it’s such a pity that folk had to lose their lives for us to give attention to what should be our birthright.
Evelyn Hammonds: Annette, I want to turn to you on a slightly different topic. And you’ve already said we might we need to separate these topics. But, given everything that’s happening in Texas right now, especially around voter suppression, and that Tuesday, Governor Abbott signed a bill into law aimed at stopping teachers from talking about racism and any current events that may be contentious, meaning, I think, they don’t want teachers to make certain topics part of a course, that someone could claim to be being discriminated against or receiving adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race. What are your thoughts? I think I know what your thoughts are about that, but go ahead and tell us a little bit about your reaction to some of this.
Annette Gordon-Reed: Well, you know, it’s. . . I think it’s a reaction to the fact that there have been changes in the things that teachers talk about from the time that I was in school, certainly. They’ve done a much better job of talking about the truth of history, of American history. And race is a part of that. It’s an inevitable part of it. If you read the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, which I presumably think they want people to read, it’s shot through with references to race and support of slavery, and Black people can’t become citizens, and all of that. So the main effect, I fear, will be chilling. I mean, there are obviously teachers. . . there are a lot of rebellious and maverick teachers out there who are going to find a way to talk about these things, the things they’ve been talking about, and they’re going to go forward with it. But it might chill some people who will just say now it’s too risky, I’m not going to get involved with it. But, you know, Texas has . . . a lot is going on in Texas right now. They have a real problem with that grid. I mean, to talk about . . . people died in the last the last disaster, the winter disaster. Who knows what’s going to happen? Because you cannot, you cannot be in Texas in the houses, the way they’ve been built that are basically ovens. If an air conditioner goes out, that has to be fixed. But focusing on this stuff instead of some real . . . I think they’re distractions in a way. And it is unfortunate because education is so important. History should not just be about the good things that happened in the past. It has to be about all the things that happened in the past. And, you know, kids need to learn how to think critically and to fight back and to and to engage in debate and arguments. You have to have these ideas presented. There are serious problems to deal with in Houston, and in not just Houston, but in Texas all over. And they’re going to have to get to that because, you know, when this business about the weather and climate change and the grid, they’re going to have to solve that. But I do think it’s a distraction from really serious issues that they should be attending to.
Evelyn Hammonds: And Ms. Opal, what’s your response to some of these activities going on in Texas? The crisis, the issues being raised about what to teach in schools, and voter suppression, and the other things that Annette just responded to?
Opal Lee: We are going to soldier on and we’re not going to let those kinds of things stop us from getting over to our children what they need to know. Our libraries are going to carry books. Our churches are going to fill in. We’re simply not going to let that stop. And they got enough problems not to be able to police us about what we’re doing in the schools, you see. So we’ll do what we’ve been doing. Pushing and carrying on. And getting things to our young people that they need to know. I know it’s a distraction, but we’ve had distractions before.
Evelyn Hammonds: This is true. This is true.
Opal Lee: We will survive.
Evelyn Hammonds: Are you feeling hopeful, Ms. Opal?
Opal Lee: I don’t know if hopeful is the word. I’m ecstatic that things are going to change. I’m so sure. We’ve inched along and made some progress. But surely, surely, what’s happening now is going to move us in a direction where we can all say that we’re brothers and sisters. I know it’s going to take time, but I still say we should make ourselves a committee of one. We know people who are not on the same page with us. And it’s up to us to change their mind. People can be taught to hate. They can be taught to love.
Evelyn Hammonds: I agree with that. I totally agree with it.
Opal Lee: So I really believe if each one of us teaches one of us, we’re gonna make it. And I hope people don’t think this pie-in-the-sky, we’ve got to use the weapons that we have.
Evelyn Hammonds: So do you have some last words for our students and the youth who are listening to us today?
Opal Lee: I’m wanting these young people to know that they are the future. That they have got to continue what many of them are doing. They need to know that nothing is given to us. We have to continue to ask for, to barter for, and get what we need the best way we can. I do not condone violence, but I’m saying, they can take us much further than we’ve come already. And it’s left to them. We’re depending on them to get us to the finish line.
Anna Fisher-Pinkert: On June 17, Ms. Opal Lee was in attendance at the White House as President Biden signed the bill that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Biden called Ms. Opal an “incredible woman.”
On June 18, Juneteenth was observed as a federal holiday for the first time.
On June 19, Ms. Opal was back in Fort Worth, leading a celebratory Juneteenth caravan down Commerce Street. She said that walk would be “a joy.”
To watch the full conversation between Professor Hammonds, Professor Gordon-Reed, and Ms. Opal Lee, visit hsph.me/opallee.
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Our editor for this episode was Mary Dooe.
I’m Anna Fisher Pinkert, host and producer of Better Off, a podcast of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.