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94-year-old Texas 'Grandmother of Juneteenth' helped lead fight for federal holiday

Opal Lee is a lifelong activist who walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington D.C. five years ago to campaign for a federal Juneteenth holiday.

GALVESTON, Texas — No one was happier to hear that Congress voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday than 94-year-old Opal Lee of Fort Worth.

“Woo hoo! I’ve got so many different feelings all gurgling up here, I don’t know what to call them all,” she said after watching U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s announcement Wednesday night. “I’m so delighted to know that finally we’ve got a Juneteenth bill passed.”

Editor's note: The video above originally aired on Feb. 12, 2021

Miss Opal is a lifelong activist who walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington D.C. five years ago to campaign for a federal Juneteenth holiday.

"I thought, maybe if an old lady started out, someone would take notice. Congress and the president would say, 'We don't want that old lady dying on our watch,'" she told WFAA in February.

MORE: Special section on Juneteenth

RELATED: Watch 'Juneteenth: 1865-2021' in full

In a full-circle moment, President Biden invited Miss Opal to the White House today to witness him sign the bill. 

"We're blessed to make this day in the presence of Miss Opal Lee -- as my mother said 'God love her'... Miss Opal, you're incredible," Biden said. "A daughter of Texas, grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday."

KHOU 11 Anchor Len Cannon met Miss Opal in May when she was in Galveston for another walk to draw attention to her mission.

“I don't want you all to think that this old lady is gonna sprint. I ain’t!” she laughed.“I’m gonna make this two-and-a-half mile trek; I’m gonna keep on walking, I’m gonna keep on talking till Juneteenth’s a national holiday.”

The 2.5 miles Opal walks every year symbolize the two-and-a-half years it took before enslaved Texans in Galveston learned they were free on June 19,1865.

With the bill passed, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” can take pride in knowing her determination and sweat and sore feet from all those miles helped make it happen.

Miss Opal first celebrated the holiday decades ago as a kid in Marshall, Texas before moving to Fort Worth at age 10.

“Her mother sold the cow for train fare so they could move to Fort Worth,” Bud Kennedy, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star Telegram told WFAA.

Kennedy has covered Opal’s movement for the last decade.

   

There’s one story, though, Opal kept mostly secret her whole life, even to some close to her.

Her family moved into a home at the corner of New York Avenue and East Annie Street.

“It was a neat little place and my mom had it fixed up so nice,” Opal remembered. “Two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen.”

But they were a Black family in a white neighborhood.

“The people in the neighborhood start gathering. There were 500 strong," she told WFAA's William Joy.

“The mob came, throwing bricks and bottles,” Kennedy said, describing newspapers clippings from Fort Worth and wire services.

Longtime civil rights activist, Opal Lee, 90, saw her family's own home firebombed in the late 1930s.

Standing at the intersection, Opal can point to where she headed to stay with friends and describes her parents leaving under the cover of darkness.

“The people tore the place up. They burned furniture. They did awful things,” Opal said. “My dad who was at work, came home with a shotgun and the police told him if he busted a cap that they let the mob have them.”

Fourteen police units at the home did nothing to stop it, according to newspaper stories of the attack.

“The wire service stories carried outside Fort Worth, the coverage was, you know, extremely vivid, ‘Fort Worth family attacked by white mob’,” Kennedy said. “You didn't see those headlines in Fort Worth.”

The day of the attack was June 19, 1939. It was Juneteenth.

Today, the corner lot is as forgotten as the story that happened there. It’s vacant and covered by fallen branches and trash tossed on it.

Credit: WFAA

“She wants to be openly the teacher and the leader, and you know she really does not play the martyr,” Kennedy said. “She doesn't go out and lead with and say, ‘You know my family was the victim of a mob. Would you help me with this?'”

To Opal, Juneteenth isn’t about happened on the day in 1865 or even 1939. It matters because of what it represents.

“Opal makes the point over and over that it's a holiday for everyone,” Kennedy said. “It's the day that everyone gained freedom.”

She sees it’s a yearly reminder for everyone to come together.

“I’d scream it from the housetops that unity is freedom,” Opal said.

It’s the most important lesson from the educator who has hasn’t stopped trying to teach.

“People have been taught to hate,” she said. “And if people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”