Opal Lee: Facts about the founder of Juneteenth

Associated Press /Eric Gay

By Joey Held

June 10, 2024

Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth, has lived a life we should all aspire to. Learn more about Lee’s accomplishments and honors.

In 2016, at age 89, Opal Lee began walking 2.5 miles every day. Her walks symbolized the two-and-a-half years it took for the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas and end slavery in the United States. That momentous event occurred on June 19, 1865, and was called Juneteenth.

Lee, a Fort Worth native, had a particular destination in mind. She was walking to Washington, D.C., hoping to get Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday.

“I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice,” she told NPR.

Just about everyone noticed. Several celebrities, including actress Lupita Nyong’o and singer Usher, showed their support and amplified her message. Lee’s petition, which she hoped would receive 100,000 signatures, surpassed 1.6 million.

Though Lee says she didn’t walk the entire 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to D.C., she did walk “hundreds” of them. Most importantly, she accomplished her goal.

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Senate Bill S. 475, making Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday. The vote passed 42 years after Texas began recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday in 1979.

Lee has led an incredible life, and at 97, she’s still going strong. Here are 12 facts about the grandmother of Juneteenth.

1. She’s originally from Marshall, Texas

Lee was born on October 7, 1926, the oldest of three children. Her parents were Otis Flake and Mattie Broadus Flake, and her paternal great-grandmother was born into slavery in Louisiana. The Flakes moved to Forth Worth when Lee was 10, spending some time in Terrell Heights.

2. Juneteenth holds significant meaning to her

In June 1939, the Flakes moved to the 900 block of East Annie Street, a predominantly white neighborhood. Lee’s family had only lived in their new home for a couple of weeks when 500 white rioters vandalized and burned it down.

Lee, who was 12 at the time, reflected on that horrifying day years later: “The fact that it happened on the 19th day of June has spurred me to make people understand that Juneteenth is not just a festival.”

3. She graduated high school at 16

When most kids turn 16, they’re thinking about finally getting to drive or worried about taking tests as they consider where to apply to college. Lee had already graduated from I.M. Terrell High School, Fort Worth’s first Black high school.

4. She’s had some cool jobs

Lee married Joe Roland and had four children. After five years, the couple divorced, and Lee went to college. To fund her studies, she worked at the college bookstore and was a cook and hotel attendant. Since she also had several mouths to feed, Lee worked as a maid at aerospace manufacturer Convair.

5. She’s earned multiple degrees

Lee returned to her birthplace to continue her education, attending Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and studying to become an elementary school teacher. Later in life, she earned a master’s degree in counseling from North Texas State University. She also holds an honorary doctorate from Texas Christian University.

6. She worked in Fort Worth school districts for nearly two decades

Putting her Wiley degree to use, Lee worked across multiple Fort Worth schools. While at McCoy Elementary, she met her second husband, Dale T. Lee, who was the principal at nearby Morningside Elementary.

At first, the schools were deeply segregated. As Lee’s teaching career went on, her classrooms became more integrated, with Lee’s all-Black classrooms welcoming white and Mexican children. That didn’t change Lee’s teaching philosophy; she continued treating everyone equally and fairly.

7. She’s a fan of “Dallas”

In 1980, one of the biggest topics of conversation was, “Who shot J.R.?” The popular soap opera “Dallas” had ended its third season on a cliffhanger, and in a pre-binge-watching era, the show’s fans spent all summer wondering whodunnit.

Lee was one of those fans. Her husband told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the couple liked to unwind by watching soap operas, explicitly calling out “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.”

8. She chaired a community food bank

In 1982, Arlen and Helen Voldness started a soup kitchen called “Loaves & Fishes” at the Beautiful Feet Church in Fort Worth. The kitchen quickly grew into a food bank, and the expansion led to a new location, a former beer distribution warehouse in south Fort Worth. The name changed to The Metroplex Food Bank.

Later in the 80s, Lee became the food bank’s board chair. She continued the original mission of feeding the hungry and helped the food bank grow its awareness and reach. Today, the Community Food Bank on Galvez Avenue can use up to 28,000 square feet of collective freezer and cooler space, offering families nutritious meats, produce, and dairy.

9. She still runs a farm in Fort Worth

Encouraged by her work with the food bank, Lee also helped start Opal’s Farm, a five-acre urban farm near the Trinity River. The Tarrant Regional Water District granted the use of the acres to help Lee build her farm. Unity Unlimited, a foundation started by Lee’s granddaughter, Dione Sims, oversees the farm’s activities.

The farm uses 100% organic methods and has created jobs, provided training, and boosted the local community. Lee hired formerly incarcerated people struggling to get back into the workforce. Today, the farm supplies all kinds of food, from watermelons to tomatoes to beans.

10. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize

In January 2022, 33 members of Congress nominated Lee for a Nobel Peace Prize, recognizing her decades of activism and charity. The Nobel Foundation said there were 343 candidates for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, though typically, we don’t learn about nominees until 50 years after the award is given. However, Lee’s work has been so monumental that the U.S. Congress wanted to spotlight her.

11. She’s received a Presidential Medal of Freedom

Lee returned to the White House in 2024, this time for another recognition. President Biden awarded Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

The grandmother of Juneteenth was one of 19 people to receive the honor this year. Others in the group included Clarence B. Jones and the late Medgar Evers, both of whom helped advance civil rights for all.

Opal Lee: Facts about the founder of Juneteenth

Public Domain Photo

12. She’s opening up a museum

Over the past several years, Lee has been investing dollars and resources to open up the National Juneteenth Museum. Alongside Texas State Representative Al Edwards, who’s often called the “Father of Juneteenth,” Lee is the inspiration for the museum.

The National Juneteenth Museum is expected to open in 2026 and will aim to be “an epicenter for education and celebration that is dedicated to building opportunities to advance future generations.” Its values align with Lee’s, who hopes that the holiday becomes one we celebrate all the way until July 4 to truly honor the freedom of every American.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Opal Lee: Facts about the founder of JuneteenthOpal Lee: Facts about the founder of Juneteenth

  • Joey Held

    Joey Held is a writer and author and the founder of Fun Fact Friyay. He’s regularly planning travel adventures and encourages exploring new places with curiosity and kindness.

CATEGORIES: LOCAL HISTORY

Politics

Local News

Related Stories
Share This