It took 80 years, but this holiday season was extra special for Opal Lee, the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth.
It looks like Opal Lee is finally getting the justice her family deserves…too bad it only took 80 years to happen. The 97-year-old woman, also known to many as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was gifted land owned by her family before a racist mob destroyed their home and forced them to leave.
On June 19, 1939, just four days after Lee’s family moved into their Fort Worth, Texas home, a racist crowd of 500 people showed up at their door, destroyed their home and burned their personal possessions. In fear for their lives, the then-12-year-old Lee and her family fled the home they thought would give them a fresh start.
“It was going to be the nicest place we had in Fort Worth. We were so proud of it,” Lee told Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA. “We were frightened to death when our parents sent us away from the house. To come back later to see it in shambles, that was traumatic.”
So when she discovered Habitat for Humanity owned the vacant lot where her family home once stood, Lee reached out to see if she could buy it. But rather than make her pay for what was rightfully hers, the organization decided to give Lee the land and build her a new home with the help of community donations and volunteer labor. “I could have done a holy dance, I tell you,” Lee said. “That was really…oh boy!”
“It should be hers, and there should be something good to come out of something terrible all those years ago,” said Gage Yager, CEO of Trinity Habitat for Humanity.
Lee made news in 2016 when, at 89 years old, she walked over 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., in an effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Joe Biden finally signed a resolution making the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States a holiday in 2021. Lee’s efforts earned her a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Although nothing will take away the pain of that devastating incident, Yager says hopes the new home gives Lee something to celebrate.
“It’s both an amazing and terrible story, and hopefully, as she says, it comes full circle,” Yager said. “We’ll build a home, laugh, cry and move her in. And we’ll celebrate the moment when that happens.”
By Angela Johnson for The Root