Opal Lee is not just the “Grandmother of Junteenth,” a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated civil rights activist for her March2DC campaign and her advocacy to make Juneteenth a national holiday — she’s also full of surprises.

At 96, she walks slowly into the room for her interview, but everything changes when she decides to bring out her favorite books. Excitement gets her moving, and she’s out of the room in a flash, suddenly hard to keep up with. She excitedly talks about the latest additions to her library, and it’s easy to see the Opal Lee her friends know best: a woman who brings passion to everything she does.

Lee has lived in Fort Worth for 86 years. Her life is not just a snapshot of the city’s history, but more of a long exposure capturing the city’s complex history with race. The scope of history she’s observed is vast, from the Jim Crow days of her childhood and watching her daughter picket for civil rights in the 1960s, to standing beside President Joe Biden as he signed the bill marking Juneteenth a federal holiday. But while children today share classrooms as she never could, she said society is still recovering from Jim Crow.

“We’re comfortable, we’re accepted, yeah. But there’s so much that needs to be done,” she said.

Multiple framed honorary degrees from colleges around Texas are stacked along a wall in Lee’s home entryway, and numerous awards line a table in the hall by her bedroom. Technically she “retired” in 1977, but in reality she’s busier than most people in their 30s. She helps run Opal’s Farm (a 2.5-acre community garden that provides organic produce to farmers’ markets and the Community Food Bank), authored “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story” in 2019, and is a founding board member for the upcoming National Juneteenth Museum (among many others). During this interview, her home was filled with activity, and several people came through her front door, including Farm manager, Gregory Joel, carrying an armful of fresh lettuce.

It’s easy to see the girl Lee was in her childhood — the self-described “tomboy” who loved climbing trees and playing with her two younger brothers. 

Lee (nee Flake) moved to Fort Worth in the late 1930s and remembered it feeling very different from Marshall, where she lived until she was 9. Instead of a tight-knit community as she’d had in Marshall, she said Jim Crow left Fort Worth neighborhoods separated by race — a division that remains in some parts of the city. Highway 121 divided “Black Riverside” from “white Riverside,” with Southside similarly divided. 

When it came to Juneteenth, she and other Black children saw it as the one day a year they were allowed to swim in the Forest Park pool. After the curfew, she said, the city would drain the pool, then refill it for the white families to use the next day.

Black families were always aware they could be targeted for hate crimes, she recalled, and those concerns often followed them home. The threat of violence against Black residents was so high in some areas, she said, families kept guns and kept watch throughout the night.

“There were patterns,” she said. “There are still patterns.”

But Lee and other Black children didn’t know to be outraged. They just lived. 

“We hadn’t been taught to dislike anybody. We hadn’t been taught what segregation was. We didn’t know what the hell was happening, she said. “And it didn’t occur to us to be unhappy about it.”

She remembered enjoying her childhood and described it as idyllic at times — the days she spent shooting marbles with her brothers or the summers she’d help her grandparents tend their 40 acres in Texarkana.

“Those were fun summers,” she said wistfully. “They were. You learned a lot, too … Everybody had a job to do.”

When the Flakes moved into a predominantly white neighborhood in Fort Worth, they lived there for only four days before the white supremacists arrived. Lee has told and retold the story of that infamous June night in 1939 seemingly countless times since the public learned her name six years ago, yet the horror of it still brings a hush to her voice.

It started like any other Juneteenth. Her mother prepared dinner, and a feeling of celebration hung in the air. But as the day wore on, a crowd of white men and women gathered across the street. The mob grew steadily, prompting her father, Otis, to ask the police for help. They refused and told him if he used his gun in self-defense, they would “let the mob have him.”

As tensions rose, her father told her to take her 10- and 7-year-old brothers to their friend’s house down the road where her parents joined them later that night. The mob set fire to the family home, and by morning, the Flakes’ house was unlivable.

In the days following the fire, Lee remembered feeling frightened and unsure why they’d been targeted.

“For a (child), it was … ‘Why don’t they like us?” she said.

Opal Lee sits in front of a quilt made of commemorative T-shirts from every Juneteenth walk she’s participated in. (Erin Ratigan | Fort Worth Report)

The Flakes soon found a new home. Lee threw herself into her studies at Cooper Street Elementary, then later at I. M. Terrell High School. She said English was her favorite subject. She loved reading (and her packed home library confirms she still does). In Black schools, textbooks were handed down after white children used them. Looking back on those days she shakes her head almost in disbelief, frustration fresh in her eyes.

“I remember when the books were handed down. Oh my God. You might have a lesson and a page torn out. You’d be mad,” she said.

She later became a teacher in the then-segregated Fort Worth Independent School District in the 1950s, and remembers following the Supreme Court’s deliberation on Brown v. Board of Education. The court’s ruling in 1954 against school segregation filled her with hope for her students, she said.

But FWISD was slow to integrate schools, with desegregation facing harsh criticism from parents, she said. It wasn’t until 1963 that Fort Worth ISD began integrating schools following a federal appeals court order. Once desegregation efforts began, Lee remembered white schools identifying the best teachers in previously all-Black schools and moving them into predominantly white schools. It wasn’t until 1967 — 13 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling — that the last high school in the district allowed Black students to enroll.

Fort Worth has come a long way since Jim Crow, Lee said. Some Confederate symbols around the city were removed as recently as 2020 following petitions and public demand. One, a monument to Confederate soldiers, was removed from outside the Tarrant County Courthouse following public outcry after the death of George Floyd. In 2017, in south Fort Worth, activists successfully petitioned the city council to rename Jefferson Davis park on Townsend Drive to “Unity Park.” 

Meanwhile, at Texas Christian University, students have pushed school administrators to address the school’s ties to racism and slavery for years, particularly regarding the statue of TCU founders Randolph and Addison Clark located beside the campus library. The Clarks were Confederate soldiers whose family owned slaves. In 2021, TCU chancellor Victor Boschini acknowledged in the school’s Race and Reconciliation Initiative’s first annual report that the school has tangible ties to the Confederacy, but said TCU’s values today “are inconsistent with racism in any form.”

This September, the City Council approved a resolution pledging $15 million to establish the National Juneteenth Museum in the Historic Southside neighborhood. Lee’s granddaughter, Dione Sims, said the museum will be a lasting monument to her grandmother’s community service.

“Her legacy will be that of service to man,” Sims said. “You know, it’s all about service. It’s all about doing. It’s all about not stopping or letting obstacles deter you or discourage you.”

Race remains a challenging topic in schools, and, as a former educator, Lee said she’s distressed by recent campaigns across North Texas to ban race-related books from school libraries. She said parents’ disgust over teaching children about slavery and racism ultimately keeps racist beliefs alive for future generations.

“We need to study it, “she said. “The kids need to know about it. They need to be able to see that it doesn’t happen again.”

Books subject to potential bans from Texas schools include “A Good Kind of Trouble” by Lisa Moore Ramée, “Ghost Boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, “47” by Walter Moseley and a children’s biography of Michelle Obama.  

Educational consultant Jonathan Morrison has known Lee since childhood and described her as a champion for the community and an inspiration for social progress. He said she inspires him and many others because of her advocacy and her humanity.

“Having a person like Miss Opal Lee in the city of Fort Worth is invaluable,” he said.

Despite the continued politicization of race education in Texas, Lee said, she believes society will weather the storm. And though society is slow to change, she said, overall, Fort Worth will remain on the right track as long as people don’t take their freedoms for granted. Her hope is not based on statistics or news reports, but something simpler — faith in humanity.

“I know it’s going to change,” she said. “I know it is.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 6 to correct the year of the fire and the ages of Lee and her siblings when it occurred.

 Erin Ratigan is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in narrative news features. She has contributed to numerous other publications including KERA News, Fort Worth Weekly and The Metro Report. She is the former managing editor of a local women’s magazine and has received multiple regional and state-level journalism awards. You can find her on Twitter: @erinratigan.

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