COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As longtime friends and former sisters-in-law, Peggy Shivers and Opal Lee rarely see each other anymore. But on the rare occasion they do get together, you can expect a few jokes, lots of giggling and some belly laughs.
“I don’t know how good I am at choosing husbands,” Shivers said of Lee, “but I choose wonderful in-laws.” Both women burst into laughter.
Shivers, 83, a philanthropist and lifelong performer who once collaborated with Duke Ellington, met Lee in the 1960s when dating Lee's brother. The two stayed connected.
Lee, 95, a civil rights activist and retired teacher, became known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” Juneteenth commemorates the anniversary of the announcement by the Union Army on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Lee’s home state of Texas. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 freeing enslaved peoples in the United States, emancipation did not occur until two and a half years later in most of Texas.
Opal Lee visits Colorado Springs for book signing
Lee was moved to petition for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday partly through her own early experiences of racism. As a child, her family’s home was burned to the ground in 1939 by a white community after they moved into a white Fort Worth neighborhood.
“The youngsters need to know what happened,” Lee said, “so that we can heal from it, and make sure it never happens again.”
Lee promoted a Juneteenth holiday for decades by walking two and a half miles at a time throughout the nation to recognize that enslaved people in Texas did not know about their freedom for two and a half years.
“Peggy, I tell you, I was all over these United States,” Lee said. “Shreveport, Texarkana, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Denver, Colorado Springs — right here! — St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, the Carolinas, Atlanta ... I was all over the place."
In late July this year, Lee traveled to Colorado Springs from her home state of Texas on invitation from Shivers. Lee was honored at one of Shivers’ renowned musical concert series July 31 in a public program at Colorado College.
The day before, Lee read her new book, “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story,” at a signing at Hooked on Books in Colorado Springs.
“We are so happy for you and all that you’ve accomplished,” Shivers told Lee. “And thank you,” Shivers added. “We really appreciate all you’ve done.”
Shivers vividly remembers seeing Lee on television, proudly accompanying the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act law on June 17, 2021. “I’ll never forget looking at the TV and seeing you whispering into President Biden’s ear as though you were old buddies,” Shivers recalled.
Lee joked that she will never tell anyone what their conversation was about.
“Listen,” she said. “I need to keep some things to myself.”
“I was humbled,” Lee remembers, “and I still pinch myself to see if it really happened. Being at the White House with the president and the vice president, and all the Congress people — I was overjoyed. I wanted to do a holy dance, but the kids today would say I’m twerking,” added Lee with another giggle.
Originally released in 2019, Lee updated “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story” in 2021 to include the historic establishment of the 12th federal holiday with updated text and illustrations. Lee is also working to establish a National Museum of Juneteenth.
Reflecting on a lifetime of laughter and celebration with an undercurrent of determination, Lee said, “I ask people to make it your responsibility, make it your business, to change someone’s mind so that we can all work on the same page to get rid of the disparities in our country."
Kate Perdoni is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at email@example.com.
Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.