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Kid's Read for Juneteenth: Opal Lee And What it Means to Be Free

June 17, 2024

Who is Opal Lee?

Opal Lee is a 97-year-old activist, counselor, and former school teacher from Fort Worth, Texas. Born in the 1920's and raised in the South, Lee lived through many different phases of Civil Rights-era United States, witnessing several accounts of racism and segregation. After retiring from teaching in 1976, Opal Lee went on to advocate for her local community, helping co-found the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society and later, starting her own non-profit, Unity Unlimited, Inc. She rallied for over forty years to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and in 2016, began a campaign called Opal's Walk, in which thousands gather on June 19th to walk 2.5 miles in honor of the 2.5 years it took for Texas to actually recognize the 1865 emancipation of slavery by Abraham Lincoln. Her community-driven efforts have continued, and she is still actively involved in many community projects to improve the quality of life for Black Texans and preserve the history of Juneteenth. 

Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free: the True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth by Alice Faye Duncan

This incredible picture book, written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo, provides a wonderful biography of the Civil Rights hero in a way that is interesting and relatable for children. Beginning at a joyous Juneteenth celebration cookout, the story follows her great-grandson, Buddy, to a story time circle where Opal shares her stories with a large group of children. She begins by explaining how slavery existed in the United States, and was formally ended by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. However, in Texas, slavery continued for another 2 years, until one day in June 19th 1865, Union soldiers came to Texas to enforce the freeing of slaves. Families celebrated with music, cooked and feasted on delicious foods, and cried happy tears.  

The children love the story so much, and beg Opal for another. Little Buddy asks, "What was Juneteenth like when you were a kid?", launching her into another story, of growing up in Fort Worth in the 1930's and 40's. She explains what it was like living under segregation and the Jim Crow era laws that oppressed Black Americans, but does share that not all was bad. She enjoyed spending time with her family and reading poetry out on her porch. But on Juneteenth day 1939, when she was only 12 years old, an angry white mob burned down her family's home with no arrests made, and they were forced to move elsewhere. That only seemed to fuel her passion for justice, however, as she went on to become such an outstanding activist. She ends the story encouraging the children in the story circle: "And no matter how long it takes for freedom to stretch across the land...I will keep on teaching. I will keep on reaching. I will keep on walking. I will keep on talking. I will raise my voice on the prairie and the mountaintop until freedom rings". The children rejoice and return to the gathering to celebrate, filled with inspiration. 

Opal Lee's legacy will live on forever. Juneteenth is now a national holiday, and has been for three years, all thanks to Lee's hard work! Alice Faye Duncan's book captures the resilience, joy, and power of Opal Lee and her activism so gorgeously. Read more about her story here. You can find more wonderful books to celebrate Juneteenth in my colleague Klem-Marí's 2023 Juneteenth blog post.

Caroline Cronin


Caroline is a Bilingual Literacy Assistant for Bringing Books to Life! She is passionate about accessibility and language justice and loves to share stories and art with friends of all ages. In her free time she enjoys singing, cooking, teaching and practicing yoga, and roller skating.