(AUSTIN) — The Senate on Wednesday held a ceremony to honor the woman whose lifelong efforts in the field of civil rights led to Juneteenth becoming a nationally recognized holiday in 2021. While it has long been celebrated in Texas as the end of slavery in the state, Opal Lee of Fort Worth Texas has spent the last five decades working to bring that celebration to the rest of the nation. On Wednesday, the Senate held a ceremony for the unveiling of her official portrait, which will soon adorn the walls of the Chamber. “We want to make certain that you understand and appreciate how important this particular day is in the history of the State of Texas, ” Dallas Senator Royce West told Ms. Lee. ‘Your portrait will join the portraits of other great Texans around here, and will be here in perpetuity. Young people will know the story of Opal Lee as they know the stories of so many other persons whose portraits are displayed here in this chamber.”
Ms. Opal Lee (seated) will be recognized for her contributions to making Juneteenth a federal holiday with a portrait in the Senate Chamber, a rare honor she will share with former presidents and other great figures from Texas history. At today’s portrait unveiling, she was joined by her son Roland, her daughter Jo Ann Harris, her granddaughter Dione Sims, as well as the portraitist, Jess W. Coleman of Prairie View A&M University.
Opal Lee was born in the east Texas town of Marshall, Texas in 1928, and was raised in Fort Worth from the age of 10. She participated in local Juneteenth celebrations from a very early age. As an adult, she taught school for many years, finally retiring in 1976, before she turned her efforts toward activism. For decades she worked for national recognition of that momentous day in Texas, tirelessly promoting the Juneteenth holiday and advocating for national recognition of the date. Her efforts paid off in June of 2021 when President Joe Biden officially made Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday, and the first new holiday designated since 1983. At age 94, Ms. Lee attended the signing where she was personally congratulated by the president. Houston Senator Borris Miles, who along with Senator West are the only two African-Americans currently serving in the Senate, called Opal Lee “a living icon”. “[You] being a living legend, that young folks can come by, sit on your doorstep, and talk to you about the history that you helped form, and make, and shape in this great state of Texas,” he told the guest of honor.
Juneteenth marks the date, June 19th, 1865, when US General Gordon Granger, newly appointed commander of the military District of Texas, issued General Order 3 in Galveston, which read, in part:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
Nearly a quarter of a million slaves still in bondage in Texas were set free that day. The impact of Gen. Gordon’s order spread far beyond the state borders, with the order being printed in the New York Times that July under the headline “SLAVES ARE FREE”.
An unofficial holiday for many years, former slaves and their descendants would often make pilgrimages to Galveston on or near the date in order to recognize their history and celebrate the day slavery ended in Texas. It was officially recognized by the state in 1938, when Governor James Allred issued a proclamation that June 19th was now Emancipation Day in Texas.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called Wednesday “an historic day” for the Senate, noting that this was the first time in 43 years that a new portrait had been commissioned for the Chamber. “This does not happen often,” he said from the rostrum. “It’s a great honor…it’s a great day for Texas.” Opal Lee’s portrait will be displayed in the Senate Chamber alongside portraits of other famous Texans including Barbara Jordan, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Sam Houston.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 14, at 11 a.m.