AUSTIN –  A fundraising campaign to build the National Juneteenth Museum in south Fort Worth received a $1 million commitment in the recently approved state budget, with help from Tarrant County lawmakers.

But museum boosters fell far short of their original ask of $15 million from the state. Fort Worth’s “Grandmother of Juneteenth” — 96-year-old former school teacher Opal Lee — vowed to keep pressing ahead into the next legislative session two years from now “until they give me that other $14 (million).”  

“I plan to be down there so often, they think I live there,” Lee said in a phone interview, adding that “I’m trying real hard not to be disappointed” about not getting the full $15 million.

Lee said she was nevertheless “jubilant” about the state’s $1 million commitment. She joined Tarrant County lawmakers and other supporters in welcoming the appropriation as a significant boost in a $70 million fund-raising campaign to launch the museum on June 19, 2025.

Lee has gained widespread recognition for her nationwide activism on behalf of Juneteenth and at the White House with President Joe Biden on June 17, 2021, when he signed legislation designating Juneteenth as a national holiday. She is also the driving force behind the campaign to make Fort Worth the home of a National Juneteenth Museum and a beacon of freedom for all races and cultures.   

At the White House ceremony two years ago, Biden singled out Lee “as an incredible woman” and noted that designating Juneteenth as a national holiday — one of Lee’s life-long goals — marked the first new federal holiday proclaimed since Martin Luther King’s birthday in 1983.

Biden declared the holiday in recognition of the day in 1865 when more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Galveston were first told of their freedom by Union General Gordon Granger — more than two and half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.   

The museum appropriation is the latest expression of state support after state senators paid tribute to Lee by unveiling her portrait in the Senate chambers in February. The tribute was arranged by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Lee returned to the Senate chambers in late May for another ceremony to hang the portrait.  

In a statement to the Fort Worth Report, Steven Aranyi, Patrick’s press secretary, said the lieutenant governor, the Senate’s presiding officer, did not receive a funding request “until the final weeks of the session” and noted “that similar requests are usually made earlier in session.

“Even then, only so many (requests) can be budgeted,” Aranyi said. “In the final days of session, Lt. Gov. Patrick managed to get $1 million for planning and said we can revisit the project’s funding next session.”

Jarred Howard, CEO of the Juneteenth Museum, said he welcomed the $1 million state donation as a significant boost toward the fundraising effort, saying he was “appreciative to the state for seeing the value of the work we’re doing.”

Fundraising efforts are “right at” $30 million of the $70 million goal, Howard said last week. The biggest commitment, he said, is a $15-million pledge from the city of Fort Worth in 2022, along with “a couple of $2 million gifts.” Though museum supporters had hoped for a state allocation equal to the pledge from the city, Howard said, “We’re pleased that the state sought to find a million dollars in its budget to support our initiative. And so we’re going to…put it to good use.”

Howard credited a concerted effort by Sens. Phil King, Kelly Hancock and Royce West, all of whom represent portions of Tarrant County, and Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, for securing the funding. 

Hancock, a member of the Senate Finance Committee along with West, submitted a proposed budget rider asking for $15 million in federal stimulus money “for the purpose of constructing the National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth.”  

Collier also submitted a $15 million request with the House Appropriations Committee. The lawmakers also described how they huddled together in museum discussions that sometimes included the lieutenant governor. King and Hancock are Republicans. West and Collier are Democrats.

Collier, a member of the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee, said she became engaged in museum funding talks with Howard and Lee during the summer and accelerated her efforts after the session started, meeting repeatedly with King and West as well as legislative budget-writers. 

“One day I just walked over to the Senate floor and walked up to the lieutenant governor and I just started talking to him about it. And he was very interested. He loves Ms. Opal Lee” and supports “opportunities to raise awareness about the museum,” she said   

Throughout the discussions, she said, Patrick was supportive of the project but also acknowledged competing budget demands late in the session. At one point, she recalled, “the lieutenant governor even said, ‘Come back next session,’“ telling Collier, “‘let’s get started on it again, earlier.’” 

Kelvin Bass, Sen. West’s press secretary, said Patrick personally informed Lee of the ultimate outcome of the funding request during her trip to the Senate in late May.  

“Obviously, we were hopeful that we could have helped Ms. Opal more, but are glad that we were jointly able to assist with providing $1 million in funding,” said Bass.  

King said he and West began discussing state funding for the Juneteenth museum during the February portrait ceremony honoring Lee. The activist and former school teacher is widely known as “The Grandmother of Juneteenth” for her relentless efforts to obtain national recognition for the historic day.

The $321.3 billion state biennial budget for 2024-25 was approved toward the end of the regular legislative session that adjourned May 29. General revenue funds totaling $1 million were appropriated to the Texas Historical Commission for the Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth, according to the budget document.   

“It’s a very expensive project,” said King. “We just felt like it was so important, the Senate did as a whole (that) the state ought to be playing at least some role in helping fund it. We’re just glad the state was able to come up with some appropriations.”

King, a former House member, is in his first term as a state senator representing part of Fort Worth. The site designated for the museum is just outside his senatorial district, he said, and is in an area where he served as a Fort Worth Police Department division commander in the 1980s.

“The area struggled as a high crime area back then,” he recalled. “But it’s always had a strong sense of community. This museum will build on and preserve its heritage.” 

The museum is described on its website “as the epicenter for the preservation of Juneteenth history” and is expected to be a catalyst for what is being billed as a continuing rebirth of Fort Worth’s southside.  Lee had what she describes as “a small museum” on the site for 20 years.

“We look forward to continuing working with the state to draw down more dollars,” said Collier. “Of course, we did ask for the $15 million, but something is better than nothing. And we’re very grateful for that.” 

The 50,000 square-foot-cultural center, among other things, will include 10,000 square feet of immersive exhibit galleries, a 250-seat theater to host lectures, and a plaza with a courtyard and green-space.

A fundamental goal, said Lee, is to “make people aware that that freedom is  just not for black people and it’s just not for Texas people. Freedom is for everybody. “ 

David Montgomery covers the Legislature for the Fort Worth Report.

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David Montgomery is a longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau...