With so much toxicity permeating across the country, Opal Lee’s visit to Loudoun County last week couldn’t have been more timely.
Lee, “The Grandmother of Juneteenth,” swung through town to meet with local politicians and community activists and to spread her ever-important message of unity. At 93 years old, Lee is the oldest member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which has helped more than 40 states establish Juneteenth as a day of observance, Virginia among them.
“Sometimes I tell people I’ll get on my arthritic knees to get people to understand if we work together, we can get so much done with the disparities that we have now,” Lee said. “So much needs to be done about our school systems and our health care, climate change, job disparities. There are so many things that we can be working together about dispelling these things.”
As anyone who watched the cringe-worthy presidential debate Tuesday night could deduce, “working together” doesn’t appear near the top of either party’s priority list. It’s unfortunate party leaders don’t preach messages of unity and empathy like Lee does. And they certainly don’t walk the walk the way she has.
In 2016, Lee set out to stroll from her native Texas to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of Juneteenth and fight to make the day a federal holiday. While her plans shifted a bit, on the same week she visited Loudoun, she delivered 1.54 million signatures to Congress calling for legislative approval to make Juneteenth a Title 5 federal holiday.
Juneteenth, which commemorates the day the last slaves were freed in Texas and therefore the true end to slavery in the U.S., has become especially significant and symbolic for me. I’m embarrassed to admit — but not too embarrassed to admit — I didn’t know much about Juneteenth until the past couple years.
After some reading and research — though a decade or two too late — this day has helped me realize that, yes, history can be glossed over. Certain dates are played up and others are left out. I don’t recall ever learning a thing about Juneteenth in my overwhelmingly white high school. And that bothers me — that such a historically significant moment could be absent from any high school history curriculum is not only alarming, it’s unjust.
And that’s why the work of Lee and so many activists across the country — people sharing their stories, professing their passions — is important. They teach us. They offer a gateway to another world we may not recognize, but one that may be just down the street. They lend us perspective — as long as we’re willing to listen.
Trevor Baratko is the editor-in-chief of the Loudoun Times-Mirror. He can be reached at email@example.com.