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Opal Lee, wearing glasses and a blue jacket with a leopard print design speaks at a podium with the Presidential seal. Standing beside her, smiling, is Vice President Kamala Harris in a light-colored suit.

Vice President Kamala Harris stands by as Opal Lee, the "Grandmother of Juneteenth", makes remarks at a Juneteenth concert on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

What Juneteenth Means for Americans According to Teacher Opal Lee

June 21, 2023

What Juneteenth Means for Americans According to Teacher Opal Lee

Ask students: Who is Opal Lee? What does Juneteenth commemorate? How did Lee campaign for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday?

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This post was originally published in June 2023 and has been updated.

In 1865, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the that the country's last enslaved people that they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.

However, "Enslavers across the state resisted the general’s order, hiding the news from enslaved Black people," according to historians, "Many Black people were forced to continue to labor under the oppression of ruthless enslavers and unscrupulous plantation owners."

Often, liberation of enslaved people could only be achieved through the coercion of the Union army or resistance of Black people and,as historians have argued, Black people freed themselves.

The day now known as Juneteenth was formally recognized as a national holiday in 2021, due in large part to the activism of retired teacher Opal Lee. She discussed the message of Juneteenth with Geoff Bennett.

For a transcript of this story, click here.

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Five Facts

  1. Who is Opal Lee?
  2. What does Juneteenth commemorate?
  3. Where did Union Army General Gordon Granger travel to deliver his message?
  4. How did Lee campaign for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday?
  5. When did President Joe Biden sign a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday?

Focus Questions

What do you think is the reason Juneteenth recently became a federal holiday?

Media Literacy: Why do you think the NewsHour interviewed Opal Lee to discuss Juneteenth?

Extension Acticity

Activist and retired teacher Opal Lee said, "We have got too many disparities. I mean, the joblessness, the homelessness, the health care that some of us can get and that others can't, and climate change that we are responsible for. We're not free yet."

Research organizations in your town, city, state or even country that are working towards remedying racial discrimination across the country. Feel free to focus on one of the areas of discrimination that Opal Lee mentioned.

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Republished with permission from PBS NewsHour Classroom.

More Resources on Teaching Juneteenth

With this collection of Juneteenth teaching resources, you will find lesson plans, activities and other materials to help educate and engage students in learning about the Reconstruction era history and politics surrounding the Juneteenth holiday, and the role Black joy plays in celebrating this heritage.

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PBS NewsHour Classroom helps teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories. The site combines the best of NewsHour's reliable, trustworthy news program with lesson plans developed specifically for... See More
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