Opal Lee: 97-year-old ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ to receive 8th honorary doctorate

Dollita Okine April 26, 2024
President Joe Biden talks with Opal Lee after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Bill, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chandler West)

Renowned civil rights activist Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at Southern Methodist University’s commencement ceremony on May 11. This will be the 97-year-old’s eighth honorary doctorate.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner noted in a statement, “Having Ms. Lee join us at commencement and share her work through a symposium is a signal honor for our University. Her life’s work is most deserving of this recognition, and our students will be inspired by her.”

Another of Lee’s aims will soon be accomplished, according to the statement, with the scheduled opening of the $70 million, 50,000-square-foot National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth, where she previously maintained her own modest Juneteenth museum.

The new complex will provide mixed-income housing while serving as a museum, cultural center, and business incubator. Together with her granddaughter, who serves on the museum’s legacy board, Lee holds the title of honorary chair of the museum.

Over the years, Lee has also been awarded several titles. According to FortWorth Magazine, she has chaired the board of the Community Food Bank of Fort Worth and served on the boards of Unity Unlimited, Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, Habitat for Humanity, and the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society.

At the age of 89, retired educator and longtime activist Lee led a symbolic march from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. in 2016 as part of efforts to persuade legislators to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday marking the abolition of slavery after the Civil War. She got President Joe Biden to sign the legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday on June 17, 2021.

The activist was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, selected Fort Worth Inc.’s 2022 Person of the Year, and the Dallas Morning News editorial board’s 2021 Texan of the Year. 

Her portrait was displayed in the Texas State Senate chamber in 2023, making her the second African American to receive such honor. The grandmother of Juneteenth has already received seven honorary doctorates including one from her alma mater: The University of North Texas.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 26, 2024


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