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Opal Lee Helped Make Juneteenth a National Holiday
In Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free, Opal Lee remembers her grandfather’s stories of growing up just after the Emancipation Proclamation and the earliest Juneteenth celebrations that followed. As a Civil Rights activist, she uses stories to gather groups together and share a moment.
She gained national attention when she used her voice – and her feet – to gather over a million signatures to make Juneteenth a national holiday, which President Biden made official on June 17, 2021, five years after she began her mission.
Stories Unite Us
What I loved about this story was that it begins with children running towards Opal Lee and begging for a Juneteenth story. She recounts the struggles and the beauty. As a reader, you also become one of the listeners to her words.
Racism Means Free but Not
A very poignant part of the book is when Opal recounts how Black Americans would celebrate Juneteenth and how it meant celebrating freedom from enslavement, while at the same time not being allowed to shop where they wanted to, see movies and sit where they wanted to, or even go to the same activities around town.
Reading books like this one make talking about our country’s history more of a conversation than an awkward “lesson.” Through Opal’s memories, children read about segregation and racism from the perspective of someone who experienced it.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth, but my children do. My children loved learning about the history of Juneteenth, in all of its variations so far, through the words of Opal Lee. They are now old enough to begin to remember and understand the purpose of the celebration, and I am very excited to continue to bring them to Juneteenth celebrations in our community every year.
We talked about racism and how it effected people. I appreciate how books like Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free explain how it feels to be discriminated against and experience racism in a way that calls on the empathy of children to listen and realize that they would not like to be treated that way either.
This book is appropriate for elementary aged kids. My preschooler liked it, but doesn’t have as much context to understand it yet as my second grader.
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