What you may not know about the ‘Father of Juneteenth’ Al Edwards

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Though Juneteenth is now recognized across the country, many people don’t know the story behind the man partially responsible for it being a federal holiday.

Though Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” brought national attention to the holiday through her advocacy — including 2.5-mile commemorative walks in the Lone Star State — Texas State Rep. Al Edwards, known to many as the “Father of Juneteenth,” masterminded the legislative victory.

President Joe Biden, who signed Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday in 2021, named Rep. Edwards in the 2023 and 2024 Juneteenth Day of Observance proclamation. Biden notes that Edwards “authored the bill” that made Juneteenth a statewide holiday in Texas. It was that legislation and the advocacy of Edwards, Lee and others that expanded the holiday to states across the nation.

Edwards, who represented parts of Houston in the state legislature for over 30 years, dedicated his political career to making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Through his nonprofit Juneteenth USA and work as chairman and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus, Edwards was resolute on making his dream a reality. 

During a 2007 interview with The History Makers, he said, “We will make it a national holiday,” adding, “If God leaves breath in my body and people keep working like they’re working.” Unfortunately, his health declined following a car accident in 2014 and he passed in 2020, just one year before Biden signed the bill.

Al Edwards II, Jason Edwards and Alana Edwards-Holloway, are now carrying the baton of their late father’s organization and aim to keep his name and legacy alive. 

“This was his dream, and this was his contribution to America as a legislator,” Jason Edwards told theGrio after attending the White House’s Juneteenth concert celebration. Jason Edwards said, “From a historical standpoint, he deserves his flowers.” 

Vice President Kamala Harris and Opal Lee (2nd L), the activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, watch as President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021, in Washington. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The quest to federalize the Juneteenth holiday was not an easy one for Al Edwards, who literally ran for office in 1978 with that mission in mind. Before the holiday ultimately spread to 45 states, the lawmaker faced political opposition at home, including from some white Texans. 

“People were leaving red soda on his desk on the Statehouse floor to poke fun at him, and Black folks were telling him that he shouldn’t do it because it was bringing up old history,” recalled Jason Edwards. 

In 1979, Al Edwards was compelled to make a trade-off with a fellow Texas legislator who opposed making Juneteenth an official state holiday.

“He had to support a lot of things that were unsavory,” shared Jason Edwards, who recalled his father’s story about a state senator who said, “I can’t bring your Black holiday to my district.” When Rep. Edwards pushed to negotiate, he was asked to support a bill commemorating the Sons of the Confederacy. He reluctantly agreed. If he did not, his Juneteenth bill would’ve been dead on arrival.

“He was glad he did it, because at the end of the day, both [commemorations of Juneteenth and the confederacy] were factually true. It definitely didn’t make him feel good, but he wanted to win the war, and not the battle,” said Jason Edwards.

Following Texas’ adoption of Juneteenth as a statewide holiday, Rep. Edwards used his own funds to jumpstart the Juneteenth USA national campaign and organization, including refinancing his home. He aimed to make Juneteenth a nationwide holiday by advocating and supporting other state legislators who adopted versions of his Texas bill. 

Rep. Al Edwards, left, D-Houston, talks with Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, during the 79th Texas Legislature on May 29, 2005, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle) (Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

“He knew that Juneteenth wouldn’t pass federally, like Martin Luther King’s holiday did, because the states didn’t like that,” said Jason Edwards, noting that some states didn’t adopt MLK Day early on. “Dad knew it had to be [passed] state by state. Being a state legislator, he understood how that system worked.”

Jason Edwards told theGrio it was a full circle moment to see his father’s name in the White House history books for the very thing he dedicated his life and career to achieving. Sitting in the front row with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris was particularly gratifying as they celebrated Juneteenth on the White House South Lawn earlier this month. He said it was “absolutely wonderful” to see the president and vice president highlight what Al Edwards, Opal Lee, and others have “done for the country and for Black folks.” He added, “It was just truly a memorable night all the way around.”

As millions of Americans will be off from work for the federal holiday, Jason Edwards noted that many will get the chance to reflect on the history of Juneteenth and why it is celebrated – just as his father always intended. 

“He wanted America to take a moment every year to recognize our ancestors and their impact on the country,” he said. “America has to not turn its face away from American slavery.” 

And while many Americans may not like celebrating a holiday that commemorates America’s dark history, Jason Edwards said it’s necessary — no matter how uncomfortable it might be. He added, “Let’s lean in on our history and let it be a [reminder] why we are where we are today.”

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