Opal Lee: A Social Justice Hero

Freedom Center Voices

June 14, 2024

Opal Lee: A Social Justice Hero

“If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. But we need to know, you can’t erase history. So, let’s learn from it and be damned sure it doesn’t happen again.”

– Opal Lee

Opal Lee

Opal Lee was born on October 7th, 1926, in Marshall, Texas. She was only three generations removed from her enslaved ancestors – her great grandmother on her father’s side was born into slavery.

This was a time of strict segregation and extreme racial violence from white supremacists and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1920s at least 281 Blacks were lynched throughout the country. White supremacists burnt down Black schools, churches, businesses and houses, intimidated Black voters, enforced Jim Crow laws and much more.

When Lee was 10, the family moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Two years later, in June of 1939, at the age of 12, the family moved to Sycamore Park, a predominantly white neighborhood in Fort Worth. On June 19th (Juneteenth), a day that was supposed to be filled with joy and celebration, Opal Lee and her family experienced a traumatic and unfortunately common event. A mob of approximately 500 white supremacists destroyed their home, all because they didn’t want a black family living in the neighborhood. Lee and her family were able to escape physically unharmed, but the emotional trauma would affect them for years to come. No one was arrested and justice was denied – a recurring theme for many Black Americans throughout this country’s history. While being interviewed for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Lee 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." This event made her realize that racism was a barrier to true freedom for Black Americans, so she dedicated her life to teaching and activism.

After graduating from Wiley College in 1952 with a degree in elementary education, she dedicated her life to teaching, counseling and inspiring students. But more than education, she was dedicated to activism. She was involved in multiple community organizations like Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, and even started her own nonprofit organization in 1994 called Unity Unlimited Inc. Their mission was “Providing educational activities and resources to people, young and old, to foster unity and harmony within the community, the city, the state, the nation and the world regardless of race, culture or denomination and regardless of the form in which the events may be presented, including but not limited to workshops, expositions, concerts, rallies and lectures.” Lee is also a board member of Transform 1012 N. Main Street, which is converting a former Ku Klux Klan auditorium into The Fred Rouse Center for Arts and Community Healing, named after Rouse who was lynched by a white mob in 1921 in Fort Worth. Lee also spent decades organizing Juneteenth celebrations in Fort Worth.

“We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free, and we aren’t free yet.”

– Opal Lee

In 2016, Lee championed the cause to make Juneteenth a national holiday by walking two-and-a-half miles a day in multiple cities from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. The two-and-a-half miles represented the years between the Emancipation Proclamation and General Orders No. 3. Lee said she thought about her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with every step. She also started an online petition which garnered 1.6 million signatures. Her efforts gained her the nickname “grandmother of Juneteenth,” and on June 18, 2021, she sat in the White House and watched President Joe Biden sign Senate Bill 475 that made Juneteenth a federal holiday. That simple swipe of the pen would never have been possible without the dedication, determination and passion from people like Opal Lee. Because of her courageous efforts, she was voted “Texan of the Year” in 2021, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2024 (Our nation’s highest civilian honor).

Opal Lee visits the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2021. Photo courtesy of Alica Reece.

Today, at least 41 states either recognize or observe Juneteenth as a state holiday. This holiday is an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Opal Lee and all the other freedom heroes that came before her by recommitting to bring an end systemic racism and all other forms of discrimination.


To understand Opal Lee’s experience and commitment to activism, you have to understand Juneteenth and her personal connection to it.

Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas on June 18, 1865. The next day, June 19, he issued General Orders No. 3, freeing over 250,000 enslaved people in Texas – 71 days after the Civil War ended and two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. For enslaved people in Galveston and others throughout Texas, June 19th, 1865, offered a definitive date for their freedom. A day they made their own. From 1865 forward, people like Opal Lee led the way in organizing Juneteenth celebrations in Sycamore Park and other parts of Texas.

Juneteenth became more than just a celebration of freedom. It became a celebration of Black history and culture, Black resistance and resilience and Black unity, love and joy. It became a way for families to reunite; a way for African Americans to organize politically, economically and spiritually; a way to educate and inspire future generations; and a way to show their pride, strength and resolve. And thanks to Opal Lee, Juneteenth is now a national holiday, celebrated in cities across the country. However, for Lee, Juneteenth became more than just a “festival” early on in her life.

Call to Action

Opal Lee’s call to action was fighting against racism and making Juneteenth a federal holiday. She accomplished her goals through courage, cooperation and perseverance. Her story and actions are an inspiration to us all.

What’s your call to action?

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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