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Opal Lee (Grandmother of Juneteenth)

Opal Lee 

Grandmother of Juneteenth

FORTitude had the honor of hosting the great Opal Lee today! She talks to Brinton and JW about growing up in Fort Worth, becoming a teacher and advocate for the community, and ultimately becoming the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”


Opal Lee is an American retired teacher, counselor, and activist in the movement to make Juneteenth a federally-recognized holiday. Lee campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. She has promoted the idea by leading 2.5 miles (4.0 km) walks each year, representing the 2.5 years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas. At the age of 89, she conducted a symbolic walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., leaving in September 2016 and arriving in Washington in January 2017.


On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed Senate Bill S. 475 making Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday.


Lee was born in Marshall, Texas on October 7, 1926. She was the oldest of three children of Mattie (Broadous) and Otis Flake. When she was 10 years old, she and her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas. The Flakes later moved to the 7th Ward of Fort Worth, Texas (also known as Terrell Heights). In June 1939, her parents bought a house in the 900 block of East Annie Street, then a mostly white area. On June 19, 1939, 500 white rioters vandalized and burned down her home. Lee was twelve years old at the time. Recalling it years later, she 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.”

Audio Only

Episode Transcription: 


Jay, you’re ready. Alright Miss Lee, you ready to do this? Yeah. Okay welcome back people. We are fortitude. I’m your host Gary Wilson with my co host Brinton Payne, thank you for joining us. We are available on social media at fortitude FW, please check us out. Brinton. We both love doing this show fair to say


depends on what day if you’re nice to me before it. Yes. Yes, of course, we


strive to bring in guests interesting people all the time, it was a useful message to share. Today we have in studio someone who spent her life fighting for the noblest of causes. And in turn, she has become the voice for many people. Her mission has brought out a real and measurable change to our city or state in our country. So without getting today’s there’s no there’s no silliness. Intro Intro The guest we’re gonna get right to our guests and her name. Ladies, Gentlemen, this openly. Thank you for joining us.


And thank you for having me.


Thanks for being here.


You are a very, very special woman to a lot of people, the two of us included. You deserve our unwavering gratitude and support. You are the voice of history in you are the message for the future. So we’re thankful for your time. And without further ado, we’d like to jump right into your history if you let us. I will.


Okay, great. So you were born October 7 1926. In Marshall, Texas. That makes you 95 years young. Yes. Can you tell us about? Well, not. You clearly probably don’t remember being born. But what was like growing up there at the before you moved here?


Well, I’d have to go farther back than that. Okay. See? My mother was born perhaps in Louisiana. And her father and four brothers and sisters, I guess migrated to Texarkana, Arkansas. That’s where I remember my grandparents. The Reverend Z brought us for Zachary. And my grandmother, Maddie brought us my mother was named Maddie. So when my Uncle Si asked grandpa to let him go away to Marshall to Bishop college, my grandfather consented. My mom and that brother were very close. And she wanted to go to but my grandfather said no. And he said it repeatedly. And firmly. My mother says so if I can’t go to Marshall to school, it be shipped with my brothers See, I’m going to married judge Dunbar and he was the doofus in the Navy. My grandpa consented. But my mother and my uncle didn’t have enough school to schooling to go to be shipped college. So they went to Central High School. I’m telling you this because my mom met my dad at Central High. And he asked her to marry him. And she says, You got as Papa? Oh, slick, you know? Well, my grandparents had to go to Marshall in a wagon, to get my mom because she got sick at school. And my dad followed them home to Texarkana and Esma grandfather, if he could marry him. Now, my grandfather was mischevious. And he said to him, Are you sure you want the second? As if he had some others he could, you know, choose from? He gave his consent. But my mother says she wouldn’t marry my dad until he built her house. Like the house she had seen at Tuskegee Institute, when she went with a four H club group. So she drew what she wanted, and gave it to my dad. She didn’t hear from him for two years. He came back and told me he built that house. Wow. So um, the first issue from that marriage, I had brothers, two brothers. But martial until maybe I was nine or 10 was ideal. I never knew what I’m worth personally. Like, there was the lb price man that would come in his car and sell things to the people in our neighborhood. I guess he was white. And then that would the Moran toes who had the grocery store that we went to. We didn’t think of them as white either. I think we call the Metallian. Well, you know, the depression came, my dad lost his job that he headed for Hodge drugstore. And he left home coming to Fort Worth, to find work. And he was gonna send for his family. But he never got around to it. Meanwhile, that house had burned. And we will live in in a shotgun house that had been built on the back of the property. My mom, so all the homes, we didn’t have the one home and the chickens and the coals and the pigeons and everything else for train fare for us to come to for. Well, if we came on Saturday, my mom went to work for somebody in somebody’s kitchen on Sunday. And we lived with the Telus Mr. And Mrs. Talley and their two children who lived in service. And that was a building behind this huge house that had been somebodies home that they had turned into a medical library.


El Paso Street and Ballenger Street on the west side of Fort Worth Am I was able to go to school at Cooper Street School. They built that school on a city dump. We only stayed in that neighborhood about six weeks. Because my dad, Mr. Tally let my dad know we were in town. My parents got together and we moved to the south side. And that was a change of schools. I went to Gwyn school.


What happened when you were 12 years old Opal.


My parents bought a house. My parents bought a house at any in New York Street. And would you believe on the 19th day of June the paper said some 500 people didn’t want to sit in the neighborhood. My dad came with a gun. And the police who would they end the paper says the police couldn’t control the crowd couldn’t control this mob. The police told my dad if he busted a cap with that gun that they’d let the mob have us. Our parents sent us to friends. That was several blocks away. And they left them the cover of darkness. But those people tow up that furniture and burned it and did some terrible things. My parents never ever spoke to the three of us about it. Never ever. But they worked real hard. And they bought another house. That’s the one I know and 2016 Terrell and I graduated from high school there. Yes, ma’am. Would you believe? I graduated at 16. And my mom had Oh, she had a plan to send me back to Marshall to Wiley College. It’s Wiley university now. Oh, she was so proud of me. Because I would have been the first grandchild of her 18 Brothers and sisters that go to college. But I got married. Oh, she was so disappointed. She wouldn’t even go to the wedding. Well, it took me four years. And for babies to realize I was gonna have to raise my husband to you know me and don’t they don’t want to as fast as women. Why?


We’ve heard that. Yeah.


Well, let me tell you I cut my love CES and went home to my mom with four children and head nerve enough to say, I’m ready to go to college now. And she says, I’ve got no money to sing you to know but it’s college. In a next breath, she says, I’ll keep your children. Oh, our work like a Trojan to get the money to go to college in the fall. And guess what I did. I spent the money about the kids of television so she wouldn’t have to run all over the neighborhood after them. And I went to that school without a dad. My wedding quit my job and full work because I didn’t know what the situation was gonna be. But they gave me a job in the college bookstore. And I was able to come back to Fort Worth on weekends. My mom get the job all the week. And she collected the paycheck. Nobody knew the difference. We all look alike. But I’d go back I’d be so tired Monday but I got through in three and a half years. I couldn’t stay down. For years. I came for I got a teaching job. But do you know the only paid $2,000 A year and I got four kids. Four kids $2,000. I got another job. And so if I clocked in at school at eight, clocked out at three, there’d be a car waiting for me. I clock in it for an added 12 It conveyor. It’s called Lockheed Martin now, I guess I’d still be doing that. But they lo laid off a bunch of people at the plant. What was your job at Convair? Oh, was made no big deal. You know, when would you sleep? needed sleep when you got four kids to be fit? Yes, ma’am.


So you come back from Convair and you’d get I mean, one o’clock in the morning, probably right. Again,


yeah. I taught third grade so long, maybe 10 years. I was beginning to act like they do. So they gave me another position. I was called a visiting teacher. It was really social work. kids out of school, I had to find out why. No shoes, buy some clothes, food, lights have no place to stay. These were things that I was responsible for living alleviated. And when I retired, those things followed me people still needed food. And so with a group of people, we started a food bank. And it burned. And so this is huge building on my house that’s up for sale for $1.3 million, and is wajib. And they said they would lease it to us for $4,000 a month now has 4000 But we paid it 11 months. In the muck, we didn’t have the money. Those people came to us and says You seem to be doing a good job. We’ve served and 500,500 people a day. So they said we’re gonna give it to you. And they gave us at $1.3 million Bill 20,000 square feet of freezer space, largest enteric. And so it’s still servicing like 500 families a day. And what poll people standing in line and 66 of them said they would like to farm. I asked the Trinity River Authority for the use of some land. And they let a say of 13 acres of land on the Trinity River, where there’s water and we got pumps. And we share we got the best. We got the best for managing and all the texts. I’m here to tell you yes. And so he gives produce to the food bank and to the WIC program, and then he takes produce to the market. The farmers market and the weeds thinking the program, we tried to concentrate on the people that I had polled. And talk to them about. Well, the ones who had been incarcerated and couldn’t find a job. And we thought, if we taught them, and this was not this was paid, they want to get paid to learn to farm. And you know, people have the concept, that farm is just throwing out some seeds, but there’s a hell of a lot to farming. And if they learned farming, then they were to get certified, but one of the colleges or universities in that they would be able to teach people. And with the pandemic, we felt like they needed to, people needed to learn how to Grove food in their backyards, and on the vacant lots. We are still trying to find the money to pay each of these people a living wage. They’re not volunteer. So that’s where we are at this point.


If we could rewind your life just a little bit. Do you remember the time in your life when you realize that you wanted to do something about the racial inequities, the inequalities, the racial division? Is there a time in your life when you decided you wanted to do something about it?


I just don’t know when it happened, because all kinds of people needed help, you know. And I just got to thinking one time, I was always don’t either man is Oh, and I got a pastern and school board member the county commission in the musicians at the church and they gave me the sind off because I decided, if an old lady’s walking from Fort Worth to Washington, DC, somebody ought to take notice. And so I started out doing two and a half miles to symbolize that in Texas. The enslaved didn’t know they were free for two and a half years after the emancipation. And I left that church and walked two and a half miles and the next day, or two and a half. I did several 100 miles before my team decided that that wasn’t going to be the way I do it. Because somebody had promised us an RV and they reneged. They decided what I was doing was to cut and pick political, political. And so my team said that only or only go where I was invited, perhaps by cities, or towns that had Juneteenth celebrations. Well, I was invited all over the United States Army, three port and Texas cannon, Little Rock, Denver, St. Louis and Chicago, Atlanta. I was all over the place. And so we had started a petition. And we took 1,500,000 signatures to Congress. And we were prepared, prepared to do that again. When we Dion got the call. Like 30 state, for us to go to the White House. Oh, wow.


Who calls you in that regard? Oh, call who called you to invite you?


Well, I think it was the President of the United States. I didn’t answer the call my call book. I met him Do you know the president’s son that bill into the hall? And now Juneteenth is a national day. I was so proud. So glad so happy. I was willing to do a holy dance except when I did one turn the kids said I was twerking. Yeah.


You remember that picture right there? Yes. That’s that’s the picture that everybody knows


from you. And guess what I got, I got the pin in my hand that he signed the bill with. And do you know, I didn’t put it in a vault, but it’s gonna go in a museum. And soon


to live. That’s accurate. What did What did President Biden say to you?


Hey, what he said, I’m not telling anybody. I’m keeping something to myself.


Who else was it to serve the service that


my granddaughter Dion. And that lady right there is from Texas, and she is a state as


another picture. A couple more folks. Oh, who was that?


It wasn’t Eddie Bernice Johnson.


Barbara Lee.


Yes. No, no. Okay. Okay. That’s who that but Oh, and look at that. There’s Camilla. And I think my own state representative was there. All these beautiful people? I’m just delighted. I’m still on cloud nine.


You should be you describe yourself Opal is a little old lady getting into everybody else’s business, which we love. Because you certainly did that. What does it feel like to be called the grandmother of Juneteenth.


Hey, I don’t mind being called grandmother because I’ve got grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren. And so my shoulders are brought up take on anybody’s young cub.


What do you think happened to you? I mean, obviously, you’ve experienced so many things. But what is it that got you up each day to do this? I mean, you’re different. Right? You did it. A lot of people probably had these thoughts, but they haven’t done it. What is it that that it was with you? I


don’t know. Except it must be in my DNA. I have seen my grandparents go through. I don’t know how many it seems. But they persevered. My mother. Oh, that was an angel. And she did so much was so little, for so long. That a lot of times we thought she would do is I would nothing at all she did. So I think it’s a part of my DNA. You just don’t stop. If you’ve got something you need to do. You do it. If there are obstacles in the way you move them, or you wait until they dissolve. But you don’t give them what you do when you just don’t.


Yes, ma’am. I think I know the answer. Opal. But are you done yet? You have more to go.


Listen, I thought you never so we got to tackle the education system. I think the governor’s talking about not talking about what happened ages and ages ago. But we must. We must get it out of a systems. Hello. We must heal from it and get on to this business of making this the best country in the whole wide world. And we can’t deny our history. There’s no way we can do it. And I think it’s ridiculous tearing down statues and going oh, we just need to get the kids have written a book. Have you seen it’s called a Juneteenth for children. So the children will know what happened. So it doesn’t happen again. This is the reason why we must teach people that. Oh,


how was the book reading experience for you? Say that again? I was the book writing experience for you.


Listen, I’m not a writer who sits down with I think about something, I put it in the Cotton Pickin foam. And after a while I’ll expand on I got another book. It’s called 1619. You ever heard of 1619? Were the very first Africans made it to the shores of America. Okay. What happened was a slave ship was attacked by pirates. Okay, and they took off slaves. Well, extra cargo they ran out of provisions. So they landed up around Virginia and traded sleeves for provision. It was to those a pirate ships. And those are the first people craftsmen who build up that part of the United States.


You’re writing a book about this. Yep. Very good. If we could step back in your life The date April 4 1968. Remember this day? That’s the day that Dr. King was assassinated? You were 42 years old? What do you remember about that moment in time? Oh, and how did that affect you?


Well, it, it just was so devastating, then, when we have a champion, and we feel we’ll own a road to making progress, people listening, then something happens is devastating is that. So it was, like a setback? What are we gonna do now? Who’s gonna take up the banner, those were the thoughts. There have been marches. And they’re still marching. And there have been people who have tried. And I’d like to think that things are better than they were. But we’ve got a hell of a long way to go. And I just hope people will understand that working together, will get us down the road faster. And people aren’t supposed to be afraid. People in this day and time, were not responsible for what happens in and they ought not to feel guilty about it. Let’s get busy. And tackle our education system, and give the children the truth. So we could heal from it. Whoever said that already.


You can’t say it enough, either.


But just know that I’m hoping that people will understand that education is a key to getting over to everybody, that we are one nation advocate, celebrating from the 19th of June to the Fourth of July, you know, we were free on the Fourth of July. If we go to celebrate, and help things like we do it our celebration, then teaches something, you know, it’s just not for quality. I mean, a festival? Yes. What’s got to be things that you teach people. Get them to understand that there’s so much we need to do. I don’t know if I’m preaching to the choir, but I hope somebody listens.


Well, oboe on that same thought process. When you look across this desk, and you see two white men, who you very strongly support what you’re doing and what you have done and believe in what you’re doing. What advice would you give to somebody that looks like us? In this regard? How can we be a facilitator of change


every chance you get, and you know, people who aren’t on the same page, your own? It’s your responsibility. I tell people is some a meeting, when I see that, each one of us is responsible for changing somebody’s mind. And it can be done. I know I’ve changed minds. And so I’m saying make it your responsibility to change people. So they in turn can change people. If we took 1,500,000 signatures to Congress, and we will protect pair to do that. Just think 3 million people on the same page. I could change the world. If we, you know, stayed together. I just believe that we can get so much more done.


Do you think? Did you ever talk to your brothers and sisters about what happened on that with that mob?


only had two brothers, two brothers. No. We didn’t discuss it. I don’t know whether it was fear or that our parents had in them. The desire to keep working until we get another home. And that was the focus. We we didn’t we just didn’t dwell on it.


Do you think that affected the outcomes and all the things that you did in your life by not talking about it?


No, maybe I should have. You know, I wasn’t so traumatized that it made me afraid of people, or whites. No. Just don’t know. You know, subconsciously, maybe it’s a Juneteenth. It’s a passion. But, hey, let’s get it on fellas. Why did not? Yes, ma’am.


Oh, boy, how many? How many presidents have you had audience with besides President Biden? You’ve met other presidents?


Yes, I have. I met President Obama. What is the President from Arkansas? President Clinton met President Clinton and President Johnson? Yeah, I’ve met a few presidents. Do you have? Do you have a favorite? Not really? You know, whenever the boys in office, I’m with him all the way. And I was with those presidents. And now that President Biden is the president. Oh, he’s my boy. Fair enough.


Well, we always in the show, by asking, with family aside what somebody the best day of their life has been, and he can’t he can’t do weddings and kids and all that stuff. We try to do it. Oh, no, I know. It’s got we do that to make it more difficult. So what would be the best day of your life to this? This a lot more Indian? But


Oh, listen. Oh, just being able to talk to people and change their minds. And I’ve done that person to person. And to see them. doula? Oh, I didn’t know it was like, I get a kick out of it. I do. And I do it as often as I can.


That’s great. Once that once the bill was signed in Washington, the Juneteenth Bill, did you celebrate that night with?


No but it’s so major the holy day and she didn’t nobody saw me do it. So they couldn’t see that was


very nice. Opal. It’s been a true privilege for Britain. Nice to speak to you today. We appreciate and we love what you’ve done and what you’re doing. Keep going 25 years young, you get a lot more work to do. But we wouldn’t be here without you. So


it’s less you. If I could tell you about the things that need to be done. Oh, oh, listen, climate change. That’s our responsibility. If we don’t do something about it, we are going to hell in a handbasket. You’re not fair. We’ll and health care which some of us can get it and some of us came in that pipe learned from the school to the prison. We’ve got to stop that. There’s so much else that needs to be addressed. And you know, I’m glad you had me. I could talk to you for hours.


Well, we love to have you back some time open because you You mean a lot to a lot of people. So thank you for for sharing with us. Thank you for letting me