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"Grandmother of Juneteenth" Opal Lee reflects on her journey to secure a national holiday

"Grandmother of Juneteenth" Opal Lee reflects
"Grandmother of Juneteenth" Opal Lee reflects on her journey to secure a national holiday 04:58

At 95 years old, Opal Lee is showing no sign of stopping. Her life's story — including her famous trek from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to call on lawmakers to make Juneteenth a national holiday — has since become legendary, earning her the name "Grandmother of Juneteenth."

"I decided that maybe if a little old lady, 89 years old, in tennis shoes walking from Fort Worth to Washington, somebody would pay attention," she told CBS News of her decision to undertake the walk.

Lee would trek two and a half miles at a time, a callback to the two and a half years it took General Gordon Granger to arrive in Texas and inform enslaved Black people of their freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

She eventually delivered 1.5 million signatures to Congress, and clinched victory when legislation passed last year. It was then signed by President Biden in the White House, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Ninety-four-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, D.C.  Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But Juneteenth was a cherished holiday to the former schoolteacher and mother of four long before she launched her national campaign. "When I was a little one and we lived in Marshall, Texas, we'd go to the fairground," Lee said. "There'd be games and food and food and food. I'm here to tell ya it was like Christmas!"

But June 19 wasn't always a celebratory occasion. In 1939, when Lee was just 12 years old, her family moved to a home in Fort Worth that was torched by a White mob.

"The paper says there was some 500 folk who gathered. They drug the furniture out and burned it, burned the house too. My parents never ever talked to us about it, not ever," Lee said. "They accepted what happened."

Despite what happened, she said, her mother worked "untiringly" until she was able to get another home. Lee credits her mother's tenacity for her decision to erect a new national museum on her own land, dedicated of telling the story of Juneteenth.

"People think it's a Black thing when it's not. It's not a Texas thing. It's not that," Lee said. "Juneteenth means freedom and I mean for everybody!"

When asked what she wants to be remembered for, she responded, "I want them to know that the little old lady dreamed and they can dream too and that dreams can come to fruition."

This story was produced by the CBS News Race and Culture Unit.

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