A 97-year-old Black Texas teacher and iconic figure in the Juneteenth celebration, Opal Lee, has been gifted the plot of land where she was once forced out by a racist mob in 1939.
At the age of 12, Lee’s family moved into a Fort Worth house in an all-White neighborhood, but they were driven away within a week by a hostile crowd of 500 people, with the police present but inactive.
Now, nearly 85 years later, Lee plans to build a new house on the same land. Recounting the traumatic events, Lee, a retired teacher and dedicated community activist, said a racist mob violently attacked the family. She told CBS, “They tore their home asunder. They set stuff on fire. They did despicable things.”
She said the family’s hope was crushed. They had envisioned the residence as the family’s pride and had intended it to be the nicest place they had in Fort Worth, according to Daily Mail.
“We were frightened to death when our parents sent us away from the house. To come back later to see it in shambles was traumatic,” she added.
After more than 80 years, Lee took the initiative to reclaim the land where her family’s home once stood. Upon contacting the current owner, she learned that the vacant plot was owned by the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an organization she had previously served on the founding board.
Lee, who has a longstanding relationship with Trinity Habitat for Humanity CEO Gage Yager, shared the history of her family’s displacement and expressed her desire to purchase the property.
Trinity Habitat for Humanity CEO informed Lee that she couldn’t buy the land but insisted on gifting it to her. He recounted that “I said, ‘Well, we won’t sell it to you Opal, but we’ll give it to you. There’s no option for anything else.”
Yager not only gifted the land to Lee but also offered to collaborate with donors to construct a new house on the property hoping to ready it for the activist’s 99th birthday. Expressing her joy at the news, Lee said she would have loved to do a “holy dance,” but she cannot because the younger generation has termed it as “twerking”.
She expressed her faith and optimism about having more years banking her hope in the belief that God grants whatever she places before him.
The organization has initiated the planning process for the house, utilizing community donations for funding and relying on volunteers for construction.
Yager said: “We’re there to partner with a friend to build a home and in a little way erase a big negative from all those years ago.
“How can it not be, with all the hate and violence that’s been out there … to play a small part in a bigger story and hopefully a narrative that’s going in a good direction.”
Lee devoted her life to advocacy after retiring in 1977. In 2016, she embarked on a 1,400-mile walk from Fort Worth to Washington D.C., urging the Obama administration to declare June 19th a national holiday.
Her efforts bore fruit in June 2021 when President Joe Biden officially made Juneteenth a federal holiday, marking the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. after 155 years.
Juneteenth, considered America’s “second independence day” since 1865, has undergone various names like Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day throughout its annual celebrations.