Opal Lee (born October 7, 1926) is an American retired teacher, counselor, and activist in the movement to make Juneteenth a federally-recognized holiday. She is often described as the "grandmother of Juneteenth".[1]

Opal Lee
Opal Lee at Juneteenth Legacy Project (cropped).jpg
Lee in 2021
Born (1926-10-07) October 7, 1926 (age 95)
EducationWiley College (BA)
North Texas State University (MA)
Known for"Grandmother of Juneteenth"

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Senate Bill S. 475, making Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday.[2]

Early lifeEdit

Lee was born in Marshall, Texas on October 7, 1926. She was the oldest of three children of Mattie (Broadous) and Otis Flake.[3] When she was 10 years old, she and her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas.[4] The Flakes later moved to the 7th Ward of Fort Worth, Texas (also known as Terrell Heights).[5][6]

In June 1939, her parents bought a house in the 900 block of East Annie Street, then a mostly white area. On June 19, 1939, 500 white rioters vandalized and burned down her home. Lee was twelve years old at the time.[7] Recalling it years later, she said, "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."[8]

Opal Lee attended I.M. Terrell High School, Fort Worth's first black high school. She graduated high school in 1943 at the age of 16. She married and the couple had four children; they divorced after five years.[9]

Professional careerEdit

In 1952, Lee graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, receiving her Bachelor's degree in elementary education.[9] Lee later attended North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) where she earned her Master's Degree in Counseling and Guidance. After receiving her Master's Degree, Lee returned to Fort Worth where she was an educator for the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) for fifteen years and a home school counselor for nine years before retiring in 1977.[10] In 1967, she married Dale Lee when she was a teacher at McCoy Elementary School and he was the principal at Morningside Elementary.[9] She was also a member of the of the Fort Worth-Tarrant County Community Action Agency (CAA) board,[11] Evans Avenue Business Association board, Tarrant County Habitat for Humanity board and Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity. She currently serves on the Unity Unlimited, Inc. Board.[citation needed]


Following her retirement from teaching in 1976, Lee became involved in Fort Worth community causes. Lee helped found the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, alongside civil rights activist Lenora Rolla.[12] She helped organize Fort Worth's annual Juneteenth celebration. Lee helped campaign for Ann Richards, Texas Gubernatorial candidate[9] and Presidential candidate Barack Obama. During the 1980s, Lee originated a tradition of bringing Fort Worth city leaders on an annual bus tour through economically depressed areas of Fort Worth, pointing out landmarks important to Fort Worth's minority communities.[9] Her nonprofit organization, Unity Unlimited Inc., has been in operation since 1994 and was officially incorporated in 2000.[13][14]

Lee talks with President Joe Biden after the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Bill.

Lee campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.[15] She promoted the idea by leading 2.5 miles (4.0 km) walks each year, representing the 2.5 years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. At the age of 89, she conducted a symbolic walk from Fort Worth, from which she departed in September 2016, to Washington, D.C., where she arrived in January 2017.[7][16] She was hoping to plead the case for a federal holiday directly to President Barack Obama.[17] Lee has not only marched in Texas, but also in Fort Smith and Little Rock, Arkansas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Atlanta, Georgia; Selma, Alabama; and the Carolinas.[1] She promoted a petition for a Juneteenth federal holiday at Change.org; the petition received 1.6 million signatures.[18] She said, "It's going to be a national holiday, I have no doubt about it. My point is let's make it a holiday in my lifetime."[7]

In June 2021, at the age of 94, her efforts succeeded as a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden. She was an honored guest at the bill signing ceremony, receiving the first of many pens Biden used to sign the document.[19] As she sat in the front row, she received a standing ovation and Biden got down on one knee to greet her.[20]

Lee is also a founding board member of Transform 1012 N. Main Street, a coalition of Fort Worth nonprofit and arts organizations working to turn a former Ku Klux Klan auditorium into the Fred Rouse Center and Museum for Arts and Community Healing.[21][22][23] Rouse, a Black man, was lynched by a Fort Worth mob in 1921.[24][25] Transform 1012 N. Main Street was formed in 2019,[26] and announced the acquisition of the building in January 2022.[27][28]

Lee was named the 2021 "Texan of the Year" by The Dallas Morning News for her activism on behalf of Black Texans.[29] She was also included in the 2021 book Unsung Heroes for operating a food bank, farm, and community garden[30] throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.[31]


  1. ^ a b Jackson, Angelique (June 17, 2021). "Why 94-Year-Old Activist Opal Lee Marched to Make Juneteenth a National Holiday". Variety. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  2. ^ "Bill Signed: S. 475". White House Briefing Room - Statements and Releases. June 18, 2021. Retrieved June 18, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ "United States Census, 1930," database with images, Family Search (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:H1B3-TPZ : accessed June 19, 2021), Opal L Flake in household of Otis Flake, Marshall, Harrison, Texas, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 10, sheet 3A, line 35, family 61, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 2354; FHL microfilm 2,342,088.
  4. ^ McGinnis, Cory (June 14, 2021). "Our America: Meet Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth". ABC7 Los Angeles. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
  5. ^ United States Census, 1940," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K47D-G6V : July 29, 2019), Opal L Flakes in household of Otis Flakes, Ward 7, Fort Worth, Justice Precinct 1, Tarrant, Texas, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 257-32, sheet 15A, line 24, family 343, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, NARA digital publication T627. Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007, RG 29. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012, roll 4185.
  6. ^ Carmel, Julia (June 18, 2020). "Opal Lee's Juneteenth Vision Is Becoming Reality". New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c McGinnis, Cory (June 17, 2021). "Our America: Meet Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth". ABC 7. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  8. ^ Kennedy, Bud (June 12, 2020). "She was 12 when whites burned her house down. At 93, Opal Lee leads a walk for unity". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e "16 Apr 1990, 16 - Fort Worth Star-Telegram at Newspapers.com". Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
  10. ^ "Activist, Leader Opal Lee Dedicates Her Life to Fort Worth Community". NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth. Retrieved June 16, 2021.
  11. ^ "CIVIL RIGHTS ICON AND EDUCATOR OPAL LEE CELEBRATES 91ST BIRTHDAY". Fort Worth Independent School District. 2017. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  12. ^ "Opal Lee at the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society". UTA Libraries Digital Gallery/digitalgallery-beta. June 22, 2021. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  13. ^ "UNITY UNLIMITED, INC. :: Texas (US) :: OpenCorporates". opencorporates.com. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  14. ^ "Unity Unlimited - About". www.unityunlimited.org. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  15. ^ Romo, Vanessa (June 17, 2021). "One Woman's Decades-Long Fight To Make Juneteenth A U.S. Holiday". National Public Radio. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  16. ^ Connelly, Christopher (September 6, 2016). "This 89-Year-Old Is Walking To Washington". Houston Public Media. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  17. ^ Kornfield, Meryl (June 19, 2021). "Meet Opal Lee, the 94-year-old activist who marched for miles to make Juneteenth a federal holiday". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  18. ^ "Juneteenth Advocate Opal Lee Celebrates". Atlanta Daily World. June 18, 2021. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  19. ^ Sweat, Candace (June 17, 2021). "Ms. Opal Lee Recognized by President for Contributions to Juneteenth Bill". NBCDFW. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  20. ^ Relman, Eliza (June 17, 2021). "Biden got down on one knee to welcome the 94-year-old 'grandmother' of Juneteenth to the White House". Yahoo News. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
  21. ^ Stengle, Jamie (October 8, 2021). "Opal Lee's Juneteenth dream came true, but she isn't done". AP NEWS. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  22. ^ Kendall, Brian (February 3, 2021). "Local Group Looks to Transform Former KKK Meeting Space Into Community Arts Center". Fort Worth Magazine. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  23. ^ Ranker, Luke (July 6, 2020). "Can this former KKK hall be transformed into Fort Worth's place for community healing?". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  24. ^ Suarez, Miranda (December 6, 2021). "100 years after his death, a man lynched in Fort Worth gets his first-ever memorial". KERA News. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  25. ^ Dent, Mark (April 16, 2021). "This Fort Worth lynching tour warns of the consequences of 'when we forget to remember'". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  26. ^ Ranker, Luke (July 8, 2019). "Should Fort Worth's Klan hall be saved? This group has 180 days to prove it should". Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
  27. ^ Fornoff, Marcheta (January 14, 2022). "Transforming history: 'Fort Worth is ready to exhume our relationship to white supremacy'". Fort Worth Report. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  28. ^ "Former Ku Klux Klan Hall In Fort Worth Being Turned Into 'Arts And Community Healing' Space". CBS DFW. January 11, 2022. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  29. ^ "Opal Lee: The Dallas Morning News 2021 Texan of the Year". Dallas News. January 2, 2022. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  30. ^ "Urban Farming in Fort Worth's Food Desert". NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth. Retrieved January 24, 2022.
  31. ^ Staff, FWBP (July 15, 2021). "Opal Lee part of 'Unsung Heros' book for work on Juneteenth, COVID-19". Fort Worth Business Press. Retrieved January 20, 2022.

External linksEdit