Lee, who turned 95 on Thursday, has dedicated decades of her life to helping her Texas hometown, Fort Worth. As she worked to make Juneteenth a national holiday, Lee saw her legacy extend beyond Fort Worth. She stood alongside President Joe Biden as he signed the bill that made June 19 a federal holiday to commemorate when Union soldiers brought news of freedom to enslave Black people in Galveston (Texas) after the Civil War.
Lee, who spent over 20 years as a counselor and teacher in Fort Worth's school district, said that "we don't want people thinking Juneteenth is a stop point." "It's just a beginning. We're going to fix some of the disparities we know exist."
Recent work in Fort Worth included the establishment of a large community garden, which produced 7,700 pounds last year. She also delivered food to those who couldn't go out.
She'd love to see Juneteenth festivities continue until July Fourth, and include events that provide resources for people dealing with financial, health, and other issues.
Lee was born in Marshall in 1926. She was raised in the Piney Woods in East Texas, near the Louisiana border. Her family moved to Fort Worth after her father worked on the railroad. But her Juneteenth memories go back to Marshall, where she was a little girl.
They'd have music and good food. They would have food and games. They would have entertainment and all sorts of food. Lee stated that it was like another Christmas.
Juneteenth is also a dark day for her. It was the day that a mob of white men attacked her family in Fort Worth. This happened days after the Black family had moved into a white area. Her parents, two brothers, and her mother managed to escape. However, her parents never spoke about the day again. According to newspaper reports, the mob broke windows and damaged furniture.
Lee stated, "We would have made good neighbors, but they didn’t give us the opportunity to tell them how great we could have been."
Lee grew up in the shadows of the widespread violence against black Americans. A white mob attacked Tulsa in Oklahoma in 1921. It set fire to over 1000 homes and destroyed a vibrant business district called Black Wall Street. In the "Red Summer" two years earlier, hundreds of Black people were killed, hanged, and shot by white mobs in the U.S.
Lee is one of many people who have advocated for a Juneteenth national holiday throughout the years.
Dione Sims, her granddaughter, stated that Lee made the decision to stop wasting time in 2016. Sims stated that she said "It just requires some attention."
Lee decided to walk from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., thinking that someone would notice an old lady wearing tennis shoes. This led to Lee walking in different cities before she traveled to Washington. Lee continued to organize walks, meet with politicians, and collect signatures. Her efforts were recognized by celebrities like Usher, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sean "Diddy" Combs.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard University historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, said, "You need to have people who are committed to making things happen." Her book, "On Juneteenth", was published this year.
Lee has a master's in education from the University of North Texas, Denton. Her main focus is still on young people. So that the U.S. can "heal from it" and prevent it happening again, she wants to ensure that students have access to the complete history of racial injustices in America.
Recent developments have seen schools teaching about race and racism as a political hot topic , with some Republican-led states like Texas banning or restricting the teaching of certain concepts.
Lee said, "I am adamant that schools actually have the truth told," and he has written a children’s book called "Juneteenth" which helps to teach the history of slavery.
Lee is one of the founding members of Transform 1012 North Main Street, a coalition that works to transform Fort Worth's former KKK auditorium into the Fred Rouse Center and Museum for Arts and Community Healing. The name is in honor of a Black man who was lynched in 1921.
Lee stated, "Let's make this a place where people can see the reconciliation and all the things that need doing."
Daniel Banks and Adam W. McKinney, co-founders and leaders of DNAWORKS, a service and arts organization, brought together local activists to help them. McKinney stated that Lee's leadership style invites others to follow in his footsteps.
McKinney stated, "I learn so many from her in each one of our interactions."
Brenda Sanders-Wise is the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society's executive director. Lee was a charter member. Sanders-Wise said that Lee likes to be described as "just an old lady in tennis shoes getting into everybody's business." Sanders Wise can think of other ways to describe Lee.
Sanders-Wise stated that Opal Lee is an advocate, activist, leader, strategist, and shrewd tactician. "I consider her an agent for change."