Opal Lee makes a new friend. Photo courtesy of Lowry Manders.

Opal Lee, known across the country as “The Grandmother of Juneteenth” for her pioneering efforts to have the day recognized as a national holiday, drew a standing-room-only crowd at last week’s Girl Scout “3 C’s Speaker” event. Lee, 97, challenged the girls to use their mission of the 3 C’s — courage, confidence and character — to make the world a better place.

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Leaning forward in her chair on the stage and reading aloud in her quiet, expressive voice, Lee shared Juneteenth: A Children’s Story with the assembled audience, including Brownies, Daisies and their families. Community members, including a few Dallas City Council members and RISD officials, were also on the edges of their seats.

“What was it called? The Emancipation Proclamation. Which president issued it? Abraham Lincoln,” Lee prompted, using her experience as a 3rd grade teacher to mesmerize the girls. “It’s not a Texas thing. It’s not a Black thing. It’s a freedom thing.”

Lee instructed the girls that, “July 4th freed the land, but Juneteenth freed the people,” and she reminded her rapt audience that, “Everyone has the opportunity to find themselves in the Juneteenth story. It is part of our combined heritage of being an American.”

Lee told the Girls Scouts it takes character to stand up for what is right, and she described her own 1,400 mile walk from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. at the age of 89 to convince lawmakers to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Some called her crazy, but she didn’t care. Once someone leads the way, others follow, she said. “Make yourself a committee of one…to change somebody’s mind. Because if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”

Lee was accompanied by her granddaughter, Dione, who spoke alongside her and challenged the girls not to get comfortable thinking of all they have overcome.

“Even today in our nation, not everyone has the freedom to take advantage of what we consider ‘inalienable rights,’” Dione said. “We must still walk and speak for freedom of mind and pocketbook for all our people. We must fight against policies like red lining that sill keep people oppressed.”

At question-and-answer time, one of the Girl Scouts asked why she and her peers should care about history since it’s all in the past.

“You should learn about your history — the good, the bad and the ugly — because there is some of it that you don’t want to repeat,” Lee said. She then called on parents — and RISD officials seated on the front row — to stand up to those who want to take books out of school libraries and important lessons out of school curriculum. “Our children need to know our history,” she told them.

The Girl Scouts will join Lee for her 2.5 mile walk for freedom this Juneteenth at Fair Park. The 2.5 miles represents the two and a half years it took for the enslaved people of Texas to learn of their freedom and “absolute equality” when General Granger and U.S. Colored Troops arrived in Galveston to read General Order No. 3: “All Slaves are Free.” They plan to attend the 2025 opening of the National Juneteenth Monument and Museum in Fort Worth, which Lee is helping to design.

If you’d like to support Girl Scout Service Unit 165, you may learn more here.

Opal Lee’s Girl Scouts read about Juneteenth. Photo courtesy of Lowry Manders.

Photo courtesy of Lowry Manders.