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Opal Lee: Meet the Texas 'Grandmother' of Juneteenth

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Posted at 3:04 PM, Jun 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 00:30:12-04

WACO, Texas — Long recognized as a day for celebration here in Texas, Juneteenth wasn’t recognized nationally until just last year.

That largely only happened because of the determination of one lifelong Texan, who's 95 years young and not slowing down.

"It means freedom," says Opal Lee, referring to her efforts to get the holiday official recognition.

One year ago, Lee was surrounded by politicians, family, civil rights advocates, and others in the White House as President Biden put pen to paper declaring June 19 an official, federal holiday.

The president zeroed in on Lee and her relentless work, even coming off the podium to whisper something in her ear as she sat front row.

“Everyone wants to know what he said to me, but I’m keeping to myself. I got some things I can keep to myself ya’ know," she says with a smile.

25 News recently caught up with Lee in her Fort Worth home. It's filled with books, photos, and just about everything one would expect from a woman dedicated to teaching and racial progress.

“I truly believe that none of us are free until we’re all free," said Lee.

When her family moved to the area 80-plus years ago, they bought a home in a largely white neighborhood. It wasn't long before a white mob descended on what should've been their slice of suburbia.

“Left under the cover of darkness. Those people tore that place apart. Drug the furniture out, burned it. It was really pathetic,” she said.

It left an impression, and inspired her to become a school teacher, and then fierce advocate.

In Texas, Juneteenth has long been appreciated as the day many Black slaves learned they were finally free, some two plus years after the emancipation proclamation in the 1860s.

But Lee knew it was important the day, and celebration it now signifies, go national.

There were countless campaigns, walks to Washington D.C. and more. It finally culminated with that White House visit last June, something Lee still can't quite believe really happened.

"I really wanted to do a Holy Dance but my kids say when I do that I twerk [...] so I couldn't," she says with a laugh.

At 95, she's a woman still marching, still teaching and still an example of Texas pride that should make the entire state proud.