It’s not often that one gets to speak candidly with a person who has helped to shape history, but that’s exactly what happened when 95-year-old Opal Lee visited Virginia Tech during the recent 1872 Forward celebrations. Lee, often referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was recently nominated by Congress for a Nobel Peace Prize. 

1872 Forward: Celebrating Virginia Tech was a three-day celebration held in late March that brought to life how the past shaped the present and will lead the university into the future.

Over the course of the weekend, the Council on Virginia Tech History, in conjunction with the More Than a Fraction Foundation, affiliated with the African American descendants of Solitude and Smithfield plantations, provided programming to recognize 150 years of Virginia Tech’s history, ending with this exhilarating discussion from Lee on March 27.

“Many people have made a push toward progress, but you young people will make a surge and push us all to freedom,” said Lee, speaking with a group of Virginia Tech students.

Lee has been creating such surges her whole life. A founding member of the group to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday, Lee, at the age of 90, brought national attention to the movement when she set out to walk 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, to the steps of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, is a holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, the day when African Americans who were enslaved in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom - over two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is recognized as the end of slavery in the United States and has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.

Despite being interrupted by COVID-19, Lee’s “Walk 2 DC” mobilized into a viral movement across the nation. On June 17, 2021, with Lee at his side, President Biden signed Senate Bill 475, making Juneteenth a federal holiday in the United States — the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established. Including Juneteenth, there are only 11 recognized federal holidays.  

“It was such a great honor to meet and speak with Miss Opal Lee. She truly is a living legend,” said Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Diversity Menah Pratt-Clarke.  “In my opinion, her speech was a wonderful encore for the 1872 Forward celebrations.”

In addition to being a social justice activist, Lee is a retired teacher and counselor and author of “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story,” a book in which she explains the significance and origin of Juneteenth. She promotes the open education of young children, their parents, and teachers worldwide.

Prior to her speaking engagement during an informal meeting with a group of students selected by Student Affairs, Lee was asked what she thought about young people who strive for change. “Oh, it’s wonderful! I’d be out there with you if I wasn’t 95 years old. Just show them what needs be done, guide them, then get out the way!”

The event was sponsored by the Elizabeth A. "Betsy" Flanagan Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Endowed Lecture Fund, Virginia Tech Student Affairs, I WILL Council, and VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning.

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