Opal Lee is sharper than most people a quarter of her age. The 93-year old activist has been fighting for years to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and to expand the reach and conversation. For those that don’t know, Juneteenth is the day that enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas were told that they were free. The holiday is gaining traction quickly, as both Virginia and Virginia have moved to make Juneteenth state holidays. The fight continues. Chuck Creekmur talks to both Opal Lee and NYC rapper Niko Brim for an epic intergenerational conversation that is both fun and informative.
AllHipHop: Okay, all right what day were you born on October the 7th?
Opal Lee: October the seventh 1926
AllHipHop: My daughter was born on the third of October.
Opal Lee: Tell her we need to have a party.
AllHipHop: I just want to say you at the premiere person on the forefront Making Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday.
Opal Lee: Well, I don’t know that I’m the only one we have an organization called NJOF the National Juneteenth Observers Foundation that’s working just as hard as I am to get Congress and presidents and whomever to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Now, we don’t talk about a paid holiday, but I am delighted to know that there are some companies that have given up their employees off on Juneteenth with pay, oh I could dance a holy dance.
I need to say this because this is actually the 30th year of my father’s passing, but he was born or Juneteenth. So Juneteenth is always an extra special day for me, for not only the implications for black people in America, but it’s my dad’s birthday too.
My son was born on the 16th and he’s my second child, and I just sent him a potted plant up, I don’t like cut flowers, I want you to have something you can grow, you know, and he’s just out of the hospital. He had knee surgery, but he’s doing fine. And he’s, he must be 74 and I have a daughter 76, we’ve been around a little while.
AllHipHop: We do have an audience that’s used on the younger side. So tell folks out here, why Juneteenth is important.
Opal Lee: I will begin from the beginning because there are so many of them that are not aware that slaves were freed on the 19th of June in 1865, but the proclamation had been two and a half years earlier. And these slaves were still slaves until Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston and informed them that they would no longer slaves. And when they did, they begin to celebrate and we’ve been celebrating ever since. Our celebration actually starts with the flag raising and a breakfast of prayer. You’re not to confuse that with a prayer breakfast, a breakfast of prayer where we give. thanks.
You know that slaves, New Year’s Eve would have what was called a watch party, they were watching for freedom to come. So we always begin our celebration with a breakfast of prayer. And we have so many other things other than the festival. We had a food giveaway last year that was off the chain. We had so much food and that’s one of my passions because I was responsible with some other people for starting a food bank that is servicing some 500 families a day.
And you should hear the story of how we had a place that burned. And we rented or leased this place at $4,000 a month and I just nearly had a hemorrhage because I didn’t know where we were gonna get it. But we did pay it for 11 months. And the 12th month when we didn’t have the money. the owners came to us and said, you’re doing a good job. We’re gonna give you this facility. It’s a $1.3 million facility that they gave to our group.
So I want you to know that from that, we have a farm. The Trinity River Authority gave us 13 acres to farm. And I chose to work with people who’ve been incarcerated and couldn’t find a job. We proposed paying them a living wage. And we proposed when they opt out of the program for them to have some certification from one of the colleges around here that says they are a master gardener. They know how to take produce to the market, that they know to how to clean the produce up, they know how to go how to farm, all of these things associated with that farm.
Now Juneteenth is responsible for these things. We don’t want people to think that when we have a festival that’s all we do, because the art, I can’t begin to tell you about the art. The public school permitted the children to be a part of it, and they were given 12 freedoms that the slaves got. And that was that they were able to name themselves. They were able to have children that weren’t taken away from them. That was so many things that a part of that affair of Juneteenth.
AllHipHop: That’s important to note that it’s not just one day, it’s something that is celebrated throughout the whole year.
Opal Lee: I’ve been saying for years, that we ought to have Juneteenth from the 19th to the Fourth of July. Slaves weren’t free on the Fourth of July and we celebrate the hell out of it. So we ought to be doing the same thing with Juneteenth. So let’s combine them. Let’s have something going from the 19th to the Fourth of July. Wouldn’t that be something?
AllHipHop: That would be great and I think we should have, you know, an education across all the schools in America to reorient people to this day so that we all celebrate that day.
Opal Lee: I agree with you wholeheartedly. I know there’s one June cheese book in the libraries in Texas, done by Dr. Charles Taylor, and he’s out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’ve written one for the little ones called “Juneteenth, A Children’s Story,” I want children to have something factual. What we have in the curriculum now is shameful, you know, cotton fields and everybody thinking we would have been picking cotton. I know better than that, you know.
AllHipHop: What would you say is the status, possibly becoming a nationally recognized holiday?
Opal Lee: For Juneteenth to be a national holiday, it means that it’s more than this little lady with tennis shoes and our organization…it means that there are thousands, millions of people who are embracing the idea that we should unite. I’m trying to say that unity means so much, and Juneteenth is the vehicle to get us to unite.
AllHipHop: Now you’ve lived quite a few years and seen so much. Speak on some of the terrorism that you faced in America. When we talk about terrorism often talk about people from other countries. But sometimes this is actually taking place right here against Black people in America.
Opal Lee: I think what you talking about is my parents moved here in 1947. And in 49, they bought a home in a neighborhood where we weren’t wanted. And we didn’t realize it. And on the 19th day of June, they set the house on fire, drug up furniture and stuff out. My parents sent us three or four blocks to Terrell Avenue and that’s why they bought another home years later. But my father came from his job. He had a gun. And the police said if he busted a cap they would let the mob have us.
The newspaper says 500 strong and the police couldn’t control them. But we survived. And I don’t know whether that incident of what has given me the impetus to keep getting people together. If those people had only known that we wanted the same thing, they wanted. A decent place to stay. A decent school, health care, all the things that they wanted and why they were so upset with us, and why people are doing some of the mean hateful things they do is beyond me. Because I keep saying, we all bleed red blood. We all need and want the same things
AllHipHop: So, today we have seen, I think it’s safe to say it’s a reality, a renewed hatred. a true almost. It’s almost hard for me to put it into context because you’re older than me. You’ve seen so much more than I have. But when I was younger, I thought by this time, we would have seen an erasure of this type of racism. But it seems like it’s getting worse and going back to an era that we thought was gone.
Opal Lee: Well, it seems to be a cycle. We were freed, we gained some things. Then we had the area of turmoil with Dr. King and wanting more things. We will we gain some things, but then we’ve got the police brutality, the KKK, the all the really rough things that have come again. And this virus thing is making us realize that we are all in the same boat.
The virus doesn’t decide who, because I’m black, or you’re white, or any of that stuff. And so it’s shaping us up. And the young people who are protesting, I wished I was young enough to get off there with them, but. I can’t, as old as I am, I might give them the virus, but those people are making a difference. They are saying no more, no more, no more. We’ve had enough of it. And I’m hoping those who are empowered will listen to them. And this doesn’t really get out of hand. You know?
AllHipHop: How does Trump measure up to other presidents in your view.
Opal Lee: You not gonna have me talk about that because I don’t want to be cussing on your show.
AllHipHop: You actually can if you want you. You don’t have to but you’re allowed.
Opal Lee: [Laughs} I don’t know if he’s gonna be a catalyst of some kind. If I can get people to go vote, vote, vote, vote, get somebody in power, who can address the things that are happening to us and bless his heart. We pray for him. I don’t know if the prayers will be answered like we want them to be answered because we want him out of office. You see there, I’m getting into something I shouldn’t be.
AllHipHop: Now we have Niko Brim in the building. How are you doing? How did you put this together? One generation sees things one way and the other half sees it another way, but you guys have really done something incredible here. So speak on your relationship and your partnership and how it all started.
Niko Brim: I’ve always been into activism of even when it was feeding people or doing clothes drives and stuff for the kids. And so, you know, I started it a long time ago and then as things started, you know, approaching 2020, and all the crazy violence that has just been going on against black lives,
I’ve just been praying and looking for ways to connect with people who are going for the same thing that I’m going for, which is, you know, humanitarian rights for all people. And somebody that was part of my team was actually familiar with Ms. Opal. We reached out she just dropped so many gems and kept me so inspired. I’m in New York, she’s over in Texas. But you know, we’re coming together to make this happen.
AllHipHop: Talk about your song “Hard to Believe.” It’s a hard-hitting track. I listened to it last night, about three, four times in a row, looking at the lyric sheet, and I was really amazed at how prolific you are on that song. What made you write such a powerful song in an era where with hip-hop, a lot of it is still like there’s no pandemic like there’s no revolution or uprising, but you’re really standing on your square and have in the past to not just now.
Niko Brim: I think that what really keeps me going is, you know, I come from Hip-Hop with my parents, you know what I mean? And I also work very close with a Rapsody, so I just came off a tour. And I think going on tour and seeing what’s been going on, I understand that an artist has to reflect the times. It’s just in my nature, I’m somebody adept. I’m somebody who’s always seen the bigger picture. So because that’s just how I am my music always reflects that. I have to have the conversations that are going on in the world and so I feel like that is what really inspires me.
And also to I feel that a lot of people don’t know our side of the story. They don’t know what you and I have gone through and what we’ve experienced on the other side of systemic oppression. And so, you know, being just inspired enough to take it there.
AllHipHop: Ms. Opal, I have to ask you, what are your thoughts on hip-hop?
Opal Lee: I’ve got two left feet, so I never learned to dance or to move. But I think it’s kind of nice. I don’t always understand it. But I like it.
AllHipHop: Who are your favorite artists?
Opal Lee: Hip-Hop?
AllHipHop: No any artists!
Opal Lee: Of course, I’m an Aretha Franklin person and Nina Simone, I can just name you lots of them, but they’re not coming to mind right now…ohhh and this young fella named, Niko. He’s somebody I’ve learned to like.
AllHipHop: Ms. Opal How you’re a very youthful 90-year-old something-year-old woman. What’s your secret? How do you maintain this vibrance?
Opal Lee: There’s no secret to it. I’ve been working ever since I can remember. And if you are thinking of yourself, you don’t have time to think of others. And from the time I was small, our grandparents taught us that other people who needed things needed to be attended to.
My mother would see after people so it’s sort of in your DNA, to do what you can for those that you can. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with what color you are. I just have to help people, period. That’s why I still take food to people who can’t get it. They’re not all black people. If I can just get you to understand that we need to get together in order to make our world a better place and certainly the United States needs to be a better place.
But we’ve got to let the young people know the rage that they have to channel it and get some people in office. But go and vote. Please channel it. I keep saying that. I love young people. I got so many in my family it’s not even funny. I got about 27 grands and 14-15 great grands, and one or two great great grands. And so young people are part of me, and I embrace them and I don’t be unhappy with them and that Niko kid up there. Oh, I’m gonna adopt him!