Lee, who celebrated her 95th birthday on Thursday, has dedicated decades to making a difference in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Then she saw that her legacy in recent years extends far beyond the city where she worked to gain national recognition for Juneteenth, and stood next to President Joe Biden as he signed the bill making June 19 a federal holiday commemorating when Union soldiers brought the news freedom to enslaved blacks in Galveston, Texas, after the Civil War.
“We don’t want people to think Juneteenth is a stopping point, because it isn’t,” Lee, who has worked for more than two decades as a teacher and counselor in the Fort Worth school district, told The Associated Press. “It’s a start, and we’re going to address some of the disparities we know exist.”
Her recent work in Fort Worth has involved creating a large community garden that produced 7,700 pounds of fruits and vegetables last year, catering to people who cannot leave their homes and working alongside others to transform a former ballroom for the Ku Klux Klan into a museum and arts center.
For Juneteenth, you’d like to see celebrations extend into the Fourth of July – and include events to provide resources to help people with finances, health, and other issues.
Lee was born in 1926 in Marshall, which is located in the Pine Woods region of East Texas near the border with Louisiana. Her family later moved to Fort Worth when her father took a job there working on the railroad, but her Juneteenth memories go back to her celebrations at Marshall when she was a young girl.
He told me, “They will have music and food. They will have games and food. They will have all kinds of entertainment and food. It was like another Christmas.”
Her memories of Juneteenth also include a horrific attack on her family on that day in 1939, when hundreds of white mobsters descended on their Fort Worth home days after the black family moved into a white neighborhood. She, her parents, and her two brothers managed to escape, but her parents never spoke of that day again. The mob smashed windows and furniture, according to newspaper reports at the time.
“We would have been good neighbors,” he told me, “but they didn’t give us a chance to let them know how great we are.”
Lee’s childhood came amid widespread violence between whites and blacks in the United States In 1921, mobs of whites went on a deadly rampage in Tulsa, Oklahoma, burning more than 1,000 homes and destroying a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street. Two years earlier, hundreds of blacks were beaten, hanged, shot, and burned to death by crowds of whites across the United States in what is known as the “Red Summer.”
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Lee is among the many people who have lobbied for a tenth Greek national holiday over the years.
Her granddaughter, Dion Simms, said that in 2016 Lee decided the effort was taking too long. “She just needs some attention,” Sims said.
Thinking that “someone would notice a little old lady in tennis shoes,” Lee planned a walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., and that turned out to be Lee walking through the cities before he traveled to the nation’s capital. She continued to organize more walking tours, met with politicians and collected autographs. Her efforts have been recognized by celebrities, including Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lupita Nyong’o and Usher.
“You have to have people who are dedicated to making things happen, and they definitely are dedicated to that and moving things forward,” said Annette Gordon Reed, a Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose book On Juneteenth was. published this year.
Youth education remains the focus of Lee, who earned a master’s degree in education from what is now the University of North Texas at Denton. She wants to make sure that students’ textbooks tell the full history of racial injustice in the United States so that “we can heal from it and never let it happen again.”
Recently, what schools teach about race and racism has become a political blocker, with some Republican-led states, including Texas, banning or limiting the teaching of certain concepts.
“I am adamant that schools are already telling the truth,” said Lee, who has written a children’s book called “Juneteenth” that helps teach the history of slavery.
In one of her most recent projects, Lee is a founding member of a coalition called Transform 1012 N. Main Street, which is working to transform the Fort Worth building – the former KKK hall – into the Fred Rouse Museum and Art Center and Community Healing, in the name of a black man who was murdered without trial in 1921.
“Let’s make it where people can come and see this reconciliation and all kinds of things that need to be done,” he told me.
Adam W. McKinney and Daniel Banks, founders of the DNAWORKS Arts and Services Foundation, brought together local activists for the project. McKinney said I have a way of leadership that invites others to join.
“I learn a lot from her in every interaction we have,” McKinney said.
Brenda Sanders Wise, executive director of the Tarrant County Black Genealogical and History Association, a group that Lee was a member of, said Lee tended to describe herself as “just a little old lady in tennis shoes who gets into everyone’s business.” Sanders Wise could think of several ways. other to describe it.
“She’s an accomplished advocate, activist, leader, strategist and tactician, and that’s what Opal is for me,” Sanders Wise said. I call her the change agent.
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