Honoring the Juneteenth legacy of Opal Lee and Clara Peoples

On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth became a federal holiday. This monumental day was made possible by the countless efforts of strong community leaders. Among them is Opal Lee -  coined as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”

Opal Lee

Ms. Opal worked for years to bring awareness to the United States Congress that Juneteenth is a day that needed to be celebrated nationwide. For decades, it’s been observed throughout the United States as a day to rejoice and commemorate June 19, 1865, and the abolition of slavery. 

This day symbolizes the two and a half years that passed after the Emancipation Proclamation when over 250,000 Black people in Texas were finally free from enslavement. 

With the goal of gathering support to make Juneteenth a national holiday, Ms. Opal started an online petition that gained over 1.5 million signatures. And in 2016, at the age of 89, Ms. Opal set out to hand deliver this petition to the President in Washington, D.C. 

Opal Lee waving to crowd on her walk

In September 2016, she embarked on a 1,400 mile long trek from Fort Worth, Texas, arriving in Washington, D.C. in January 2017. The journey, was divided into 2.5-mile-long walks every day, symbolizing the 2.5 years that it took to abolish slavery in Texas. Every year since, Ms. Opal has been steering a 2.5-mile walk in remembrance of Juneteenth. 

At the age of 94, Ms. Opal was able to reach her goal of making Juneteenth a federal holiday during her lifetime. In her recently published book Juneteenth: A Children’s Story, Ms. Opal advocates for education as a tool to make social change. She discusses the history of slavery and the importance of freedom.

Clara Peoples

In Oregon, Clara Peoples has been an important figure in the observance of Juneteenth, leading the first public celebration at Kaiser Shipyards in 1945. Ms.Clara spoke to her co-workers saying, “Hear ye, hear ye. It’s Juneteenth. We have 15 minutes to celebrate,” and the first celebration was afoot.

Clara Peoples

In 1972, Ms.Clara helped make Juneteenth a recognized holiday for the City of Portland, and started the larger celebrations known as Juneteenth Oregon shortly after. The Juneteenth Oregon celebrations include a parade, live music, vendors, educational booths, community resources, and a Miss Juneteenth pageant. 

The Miss Juneteenth pageant is an event celebrating Juneteenth and offering young Black women a chance to showcase their success, knowledge, and talent. This program also has an educational component to help develop leadership skills, community, and self-empowerment. 

In 2019, Aceia “Ace” Spade, a teen from Eugene, won the state of Oregon Miss Juneteenth competition. As Miss Juneteenth, Ace was the recipient of a scholarship, and additional educational resources. In 2021, Ace participated in the National Miss Juneteenth Pageant, and won the competition! 

The Juneteenth celebrations provide opportunities for people of all ages to learn more about the history of Juneteenth and build a sense of community. 

Juneteenth at the library 

Since 2001, the library has been celebrating Juneteenth in the form of events, book displays and giveaways, especially at the North Portland Library. 

Leading these efforts for 20 years was Ms. Patricia Welch, who wanted to celebrate Juneteenth and build stronger relationships with the North Portland community. In the first celebration, titled Juneteenth: Words Along the Way, there were readings of famous Black authors and activists, performances from local theater company PassinArt, and music from Thara Memory’s community orchestra playing symphonic music from Black composers.

“We have had some excellent Juneteenth celebrations, but this first one was hard to beat,” says Ms. Patricia. “We were reading everything from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X. We had an ice cream social with red pop, so people could make their own sundae. It was a glorious day for the library to be part of this tradition.”

Although there have not been Juneteenth celebrations in person in the last few years, the library hopes to be able to bring back these events and engage with the community this way in the coming years. 

Current North Portland Library Administrator Perry Gardner says that “Juneteenth is a true celebration of freedom.”

Perry also speaks to the connection between Juneteenth and literacy, saying that “with Juneteenth, people can engage in innovation of their minds… Going from the chains of illiteracy to the freedom of literacy and the opportunity to be educated.”

To find resources on the history of Juneteenth, take a look at these Juneteenth resources from My Librarian Alicia T.