Alice Faye Duncan Shares Lessons Learned From ‘Juneteenth Grandma’
Alice Faye Duncan, author of a picture book biography of ‘Juneteenth’s grandmother’ Opal Lee, talks about Lee’s sunshine and love, what Juneteenth means to her and helping children to become critical thinkers.
On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger entered the square in Galveston, TX, to announce the emancipation of slaves – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. General Granger’s Executive Order of June 19, Merging June 19 and 16 is often seen as the end of American slavery.
Opal Lee, a social organizer in Fort Worth, Texas, started her petition to make June 19 a national holiday in 2016. Five years later, Congress and the Senate voted. His dream has come true.
Alice Faye Duncan learned all of this and more when she had the opportunity to write a picture book biography about Lee, who is known as Juneteenth’s grandmother. Here, Faye talks about the sunshine and love of Lee, what Juneteenth means to her, and helping kids become critical thinkers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to write about Opal Lee?
I was exposed to Opal Lee activism during the summer of George Floyd’s death in 2020. Around this same time, famous people like Carmelo Anthony, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Will Packer were using their influence to promote Opal Lee’s campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday. As fires blazed on American streets, Miss Opal’s voice rose above the rage. She pleaded with the US Congress and Senate to support the June 19 holiday as an emblem of unity and a landmark towards the justice and liberation that is yet to come.
I knew very little about Juneteenth and the American Civil War, so writing about Opal Lee and the Juneteenth story was an opportunity for growth.
Discuss the process of collaborating with Opal Lee while you were writing the book. How did you decide which parts of his story to highlight?
Before speaking with the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”, I interviewed Dione Sims, her granddaughter. Sims gave me important details about Opal’s campaign which had, by then, garnered 1.5 million signatures in support of a June 19 holiday.
Speaking with Grandma Opal, I learned that she had been a teacher in Fort Worth for 30 years. While in retirement, she found a second career as a civic leader and volunteer helping the homeless find shelter. She also runs an urban farm to feed hungry families.
It was strange to me that after surviving a childhood filled with racial terror in the separated South, Opal’s personality and words were brimming with sunshine and love. It was from the luminosity of that first interview that a vision for my book was formed. I would write the conquering biography of Opale and share the story of Juneteenth in a spirit of reflection and exhilarating joy. And since Juneteenth is filled with food and camaraderie, I also wanted my book to include a Juneteenth red punch recipe.
The book has a healthy list of sources in the back. Can you tell us about your research process? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
My research to write this story began when I spoke to family and friends who traveled across America with Opal Lee on his journey to collect signatures. I learned about his youth in Fort Worth through old newspaper clippings. And to write about the emotional weight of American slavery without the gruesome imagery, I consulted a variety of reference books written especially for children.
During this writing opportunity, I was surprised to discover that after the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, black men from the Southern states joined the Union. The strength of their extra numbers helped the Union win the war and abolish American slavery. This new understanding was a boon of inspiration to me. Black Americans have contributed greatly to their own liberation. Imagine what would be gained if all American children understood this moment in time? This is an inextricable question for me. There can be no division. Black history is American history every day of the year.
What does Juneteenth and the history of Juneteenth mean to you? Why do you think it was important for Juneteenth to become a nationally recognized holiday?
June 19 is a time of reflection and celebration for me. As a Black American who is the legacy of slavery, I look back to remember what has survived and celebrate the accomplishments of the past and present.
When children in any country read the June 19 story, they learn what is possible when people speak out against injustice and sacrifice their lives to do what is right.
You mentioned that you hope your books will help children become critical thinkers. Why?
No one is forever young. Blink and suddenly that bouncing baby is someone’s daddy, mommy, teacher – an American voter. Therefore, I am intentional with the words I write. My books give children an understanding of history that I hope will inspire them to make bold, wise, and righteous life choices. When it’s parents demanding higher salaries, I want them to remember my story about Dr. King and emulate his courage. When they find out their right to vote is under attack, I want them to remember my story about John McFerren and emulate his protest. When they decide that social ills like racism and poverty deserve a direct solution, I want them to remember Miss Opal Lee and follow the path she boldly walked.