Meet Opal Lee, the 96-year-old Texan dubbed ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’

Lee, a Fort Worth resident, made it her mission to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

Opal Lee (Associated Press, Associated Press)

From trekking on foot from Fort Worth to DC to raise awareness about Juneteenth in 2016 to attending the president’s signing of a law recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday in 2021, Texan Opal Lee continues to leave her footprint in history.

Dubbed the “grandmother of Juneteenth” by President Joe Biden, Lee, 96, has spent more than 40 years celebrating Juneteenth in her hometown of Fort Worth and trying to raise more awareness of its importance beyond Texas.

Now a retired educator, her earliest memory of celebrating Juneteenth was picnics with her family in her birthplace of Marshall, Texas. The holiday’s importance to her stems from facing racial injustice throughout her own life, even on Juneteenth.

When she was 12, her childhood home was burned to the ground by white neighbors on June 19, 1939, because her family was Black.

“Mama and Daddy bought a house right over there,” Lee said, in an interview with Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It was a nice house. “The neighbors didn’t want us... They burned that place down.”

It was in June 2016 at age 89 that Lee decided she wanted to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday, which led to her Opal Walks 2 DC campaign. For that, she walked 2.5 miles in a different city to represent the two and a half years it took for enslaved people to be freed in Texas after the Emancipation Proclamation. Since then, she has made the walk an annual event.

“It’s one thing to celebrate as a culture, but for others to acknowledge it as allies and advocates it big,” she told the Fort Worth newspaper.

Lee was recently listed on the Forbes list of “50 Women Over 50” in the ‘impact’ category. Lee was also featured in a New York Times profile and interview detailing her journey to get Juneteenth signed as a federal holiday by Biden.

On June 17, 2021, Lee was present at the White House as Biden signed Juneteenth as the 11th federal holiday in the country.

President Joe Biden speaks with Opal Lee after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

On that day, Lee’s Juneteenth dreams were finally fulfilled.

Lee shared her reaction to Juneteenth becoming a national holiday in the form of a tweet.

The Texas Senate honored Lee that summer for her contributions toward Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. Senate Resolution #19 was passed in her honor.

On Feb. 8, 2023, Lee’s portrait was hung in the senate chamber of the state Capitol. Lee and the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan are the only two Black Texans to have portraits in the chamber.


About the Author:

Raven Jordan is a digital and social intern at KSAT 12. She majored in digital and print journalism at UNT's Mayborn School of Journalism.