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Lee - Opal Lee at Sam Houston High School Black History Month program
Posted in , , on February 20, 2024

Opal Lee spearheaded Juneteenth campaign

Two hours into “Igniting the Change,” Sam Houston High School’s Black History Month program, keynote speaker Opal Lee took the stage.

Judging by the rousing standing ovation, it was worth the wait.

Lee, 97, walked gingerly to a waiting chair, sat, leaned into the microphone and began to talk about life as the catalyst for Juneteenth, the national holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.

It was Lee who campaigned for decades to bring Juneteenth to the national stage, promoting the idea during a series of symbolic walks from her Fort Worth home to the U.S. capital, beginning in 2016. She also spearheaded an online petition that drew 1.6 million signatures.

In June 2021, a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden.

“I was there when President Biden signed the resolution and the bill making it a law,” Texas Congressman Marc Veasey said during one of several video tributes to Lee. “I can’t think of any better person to focus on than Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth.”

Sam Houston High School Black History Month programLee is highly sought after in February but said that Sam Houston was an intentional choice after hearing good things about its past Black History programs. Indeed, the yearly event has become a district staple with other campuses joining in on the celebration, too, like Martin High School (Davina Obinyan recited her “Black Monologue”), Nichols Junior High (performed its award-winning step routine), Dallas ISD’s fifth grade oratory winner Jzairus Hopkins Swanson (recited his speech) and TCC Northeast (a spirited hip-hop performance).

“When presenting a program that reflects the resilience, creativity and leadership of African Americans who have shaped our nation’s history, who better represents that than Opal Lee?” Sam Houston principal Juan Villarreal said when opening the program.

Black History committee member Billy Wilson said Lee was a good fit for its new theme, “Igniting the Change,” a theme which he didn’t quite understand at first.

“As I got to ponder it a bit more,” he said, “I really got to see it as a call to action. Each of us in our everyday lives has been taught to make decisions about what we will do. We have a mind that lets us make choices of right and wrong.

“Each of us, as we go through the day, we see things going on we need to say something about. Whether it is integration, jail deaths or the homeless, there are a lot of things going on we can say something about. If we each do our part, we can bring a better society. We should be a committee of one to change. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”

That was the sentiment for the program, including performances by various Sam Houston choirs, the Jazz Ensemble, the dance group African Sensations, the Color Guard and the oratory group “Young People of Color.”

Committee chair Graylon Roberson, a teacher at Sam Houston, directed a Black music appreciation medley featuring songs from Chuck Berry to Whitney Houston.

“We work on this program starting from the end of the last year’s program,” Roberson said. “The students and staff all come together, including members of the community, other high schools and colleges.”

Sam Houston High School Black History Month programLast year, the program honored John Lewis and his campaign for civil rights.

“This year, the students said, ‘We want to start something that ignites a change’ and say how it’s bigger than us, more than just us,” Roberson said. “When we found out that we’d have Opal Lee coming, we thought that ‘Igniting the Change’ was perfect, seeing that to start something, all it takes is one small step that can make a difference. That’s what we wanted to hone in on this year.”

During her speech, Lee said she took one step toward making Juneteenth a national holiday and watched as many others followed and kept pace.

“All you have to be is a committee of one,” she said, “to change somebody’s mind, to get people who are not on the same page on the same page. You can change minds if you keep at it. You can change lives. That’s what we did with Juneteenth.”