On June 19, 1939, a home on Fort Worth’s south side was vandalized and burned. Angry that a Black family had moved into the neighborhood, a group of 500 protesters dragged furniture into the yard, smashed windows, and set the home on fire. Otis Flake and his family were forced to run. Among them was 12-year-old Opal Lee.
“I'm not sure if that's the catalyst for me wanting Juneteenth, for everybody to know about it,” the now 95-year-old said. “It’s freedom, you know. And not freedom for black people or Texas people. It’s freedom for everyone.” Known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Lee went on to successfully advocate for turning the commemorative day into a federally recognized national holiday.
Born in Marshall, Texas, Lee grew up surrounded by Juneteenth celebrations. “We'd go to the fairgrounds, and there'd be music and food. And games and food. And people speaking, and food and food and food!” When her family later moved to Fort Worth, the big Juneteenth parties all but ended. “People would only celebrate with friends,” she said.
Eventually that changed, though. Lee met a woman named Lenora Rolla. Rolla founded the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society after the city tasked her with gathering the history of African Americans in early Fort Worth. She learned that there wasn’t much on record nor were there programs teaching or celebrating that history. Lee helped Rolla grow the Juneteenth celebrations from private parties to big gatherings in local parks.
“Oh, I remember Juneteenth in Sycamore Park. Tiny little park. And the paper said there were thirty thousand in a three-day period. Ten thousand people a day. And did we have fun!” Lee stayed involved with the organization and made sure her family followed her lead, teaching her children and grandchildren the importance of Juneteenth.
“Well, I'll tell you this. We've always been around Juneteenth,” said Dione Sims, one of Lee’s grandchildren. “I did the souvenir book, stuff on the computer, that kind of thing. I didn't march in the parades. It was hot. You know, June is hot! But I did stuff in the background, made sure programs and things were done.”
Sims took on a secretary role for her grandmother in 2016 as Lee became more and more involved in Juneteenth celebrations and the media requests started pouring in. “We finished 2016 Juneteenth and she tells me that she wants to walk to Washington, DC.”
Sims had concerns about her grandmother making the 1,440-mile trek from Fort Worst to DC at 89.
But Lee insisted. She needed to talk to everybody about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. “And so I decided if a little old lady in tennis shoes walked from Fort Worth to Washington, somebody would take notice," said Lee.
She walked two and a half miles every morning and every evening to symbolize the two and a half years it took for the news of freedom to reach the slaves in Texas in 1865. She walked from Fort Worth to Arlington to Grand Prairie to Dallas. She walked and people walked with her, including Sims.
“We were in Dallas County, and we said let's switch it up. Let's make it a symbolic walk,” said Sims. The team decided to walk two and a half miles in the morning and in the evening in cities where Juneteenth celebrations were taking place.
Lee and her team were invited to dozens of cities across the country — Tuskegee, Shreveport, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta to name just a few.
“She walked every time, and folks walked with her, and it was beautiful,” said Sims. “The country really embraced her.”
The team used the walks to gain support for their petition asking for Juneteenth to be officially recognized as a federal holiday. With the goal of 100,000 signatures, Lee and crew talked to anyone and everyone they could, including presidential candidates at the debates and celebrities like P. Diddy and Usher, to help with the cause. By September 2020, the team amassed 1.5 million signatures and took those signatures to Congress.
On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Lee and Sims went to the White House for the signing. Vice President Harris met them in the Rose Garden and President Biden took a knee in front of Lee before signing the bill officially making Juneteenth a federal holiday. “Oh, I was elated. I was humbled. I still pinch myself thinking ‘did it really happen?’” Lee said.
Getting Juneteenth federally recognized wasn’t Lee's only big achievement of late. The activist now owns the lot her childhood home was on when it burned down back in 1939.
“I think it’s full circle. We’re going to put a house here and I’m going to move in it! My house is so full of stuff, they’re going to make a museum out of it,” she laughed. “I’m going to move to 940 E Annie St. It’s full circle.”