Alaska Airlines employees have special bond with Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”

Customer Service Agent Teria B. (L) poses for a photo with her cousin, flight attendant Erica B. at a company meeting.

Family members working together at Alaska is more common than you think. But what’s rare is being related to someone who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and helped make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Teria B., a customer service agent in Austin, Texas and Erica B., a flight attendant based in Portland, Oregon, are cousins and part of a large family—consisting of about 500-600 people—including Dr. Opal Lee, a retired teacher, counselor and activist, and is often regarded as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” for her help in making it a federal holiday.

Opal is also Teria and Erica’s oldest cousin at 96 years old and still attends family reunions, but she doesn’t expect a red carpet to roll out for her.

“She [Opal] is such a family person – she’s down to earth and that’s what I love about her,” says Teria.

For Opal, it’s never been about recognition or fame. She comes from a family of humanitarians so giving back and making the world a better place for future generations is in her blood.

“She was always very passionate about helping others,” said Erica. “People kind of look at her as like a celebrity, but she is a humanitarian first and foremost before anything else. Her purpose and what drives her is being of service to others, and that’s in our blood.”

What is Juneteenth?
Today marks the 158th year since Juneteenth’s inception, commemorating the day when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Many may not know that while the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, the South did not comply with the law as the Civil War was still going on. Finally, on June 19, two months after the war ended on April 9, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that slaves were free.

With a large family, it can be hard to get all the cousins in one place. On the photo at left, Erica (L) poses with Opal. Cousin Teria is pictured at far right in uniform, also with Opal.

The journey to make Juneteenth a national holiday

For more than 40 years, Opal worked to push leaders to commemorate Juneteenth as a national holiday. In 1999, Opal had the idea to start an annual Juneteenth walk – 2.5 miles long – to represent the two and half years it took for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. Teria and Erica remember Opal’s perseverance in the early days of launching these walks.

She didn’t let anything stop her, even when she kept bringing it up to us and we thought, ‘oh here we go again, this Juneteenth thing,’ she would keep going. Nothing was going to stop her from meeting her goal,” said Teria.  

Year after year, the walk’s attendance grew. In 2016 — 17 years after the first event — Opal embarked on her biggest challenge yet. At 89 years young, she started a four-month 1,400-mile walking campaign from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. to gain support from Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday and launched an online petition that garnered 1.6 million signatures.

Dr. Opal Lee, center, walks with supporters on her walk to DC in 2016.

The recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday is seen as an opportunity to recognize and educate people about the history of slavery and the ongoing struggle for racial equality. It also serves as a reminder of the progress made and the work that still needs to be done to address the legacy of racism and ensure a more just and inclusive society.

“What opened my eyes was the time during Covid and the George Floyd incident happened. I think for a lot of Americans, it was the time to sit down and see what’s really going on,” said Teria. “I believe that time was kind of the catalyst for Juneteenth to be really recognized and what it was that Opal has been saying all these years. I think her voice was louder and more heard during that time in our nation.”

In 2021, at the age of 94, Opal’s resilience and determination paid off. On June 17, 2021, she stood alongside President Joe Biden as he signed the Juneteenth Independence Day Act into law, making Juneteenth an official federal holiday.

It was a jubilant day, and while they couldn’t be with Opal in D.C., the family hopped on a conference call and watched the voting results.

“It was a wonderful experience to have the whole family connected, even across different cities and countries, at the same time as she’s in D.C. getting a pen that was signed for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday,” said Teria.

After the signing of the Juneteenth Independence Day Act, Opal Lee, seated, shows President Biden and others her book Juneteenth: A Children’s Story.

A painful memory from the past becomes a full-circle moment

There are many stories Opal has shared with Erica and Teria over the years, but one in particular impacted both of them. On June 19, 1939—yes, Juneteenth—a racist mob vandalized and burned down Opal’s family house in Fort Worth, Texas.

“She was 12 years old at the time, so that had to have been a very traumatic experience for a young child and life-impacting,” said Erica.

Opal could have come away from that terrible day with a different outlook on life, but it stoked a fire within her to educate people and change things for the better.

In an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2020, Opal said, “The fact that it happened on the 19th day of June has spurred me to make people understand that Juneteenth is not just a festival.”

What she has taught us and passed down to the family—to us—is you take lemons, and you make lemonade,” said Teria. “You don’t let it make you bitter. You let it make you better, and that’s what she did.”

What Juneteenth means to our employees

Juneteenth reminds us of the progress made and work that remains to ensure a more just and inclusive society where everyone belongs and has opportunity. Hear a poem written and narrated by Poet Jamaar Smiley, who worked with Alaska Air Group Black Employees, Allies and Advocates, or ABEA, an employee-led business resource group for Black employees.

Cultivating a culture of belonging and connection is a prime focus at Alaska Airlines. Whether it’s safely connecting people across the world or within our company through BRGs, we are committed to creating an equitable workplace for all. Our BRGs provide spaces for employees to connect and champion the diverse workforce and cultures represented here at Alaska and Horizon.