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Monday Motivation: Opal Lee

By high school, Opal Lee knew what she wanted to do with her life. Her mind was made up. 

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be a preacher or a lawyer … so being a teacher is what I chose.”

Like several other aspirations in her life, it was a desire that would be deferred but not denied.  

Opal Lee, the aspiring teacher 

Lee's mother envisioned her completing high school in their hometown of Marshall, Texas, and then pursuing higher education at Wiley College (now Wiley University). However, Lee had other plans.

At 16, she graduated from I.M. Terrell High School, married, and started a family, a decision that led her mother to skip her wedding, expressing disappointment in her choices.

Four years and four children later, Lee cut her losses with her first marriage and returned home.

“I had nerve enough to go home to my mother and say ‘I’m ready to go to college now,’” she proclaimed. Her mother's response was straightforward: “I’ve got no money to send you to nobody’s college.’”

The road to college for Lee was harder now. She was a mother with four mouths to feed. 

Yet, her mother agreed to care for her children while she pursued her dream. Lee juggled numerous jobs to save for college, ultimately using her savings not for tuition but to buy a television to keep her children occupied and safe at home.

“And I went to Wiley without a dime,” Lee said. 

Upon arriving at Wiley College, a historically Black higher education institution in Marshall, Texas, Lee took a job in the college bookstore to finance her education. She also kept her job in Fort Worth, working weekends. 

In three and a half years, she completed her degree at Wiley.

More than seven years after finishing high school, her dream of becoming a teacher was achieved. Though deferred, it was not denied.

Opal Lee, the educator 

Lee returned to Fort Worth and accepted a teaching position with the Fort Worth ISD earning $2,000 a year. It was not enough to support her family, prompting her to take a second job. 

From 8 a.m. to 3p.m., she was in the classroom. An hour later, she clocked in at her second job at the Convair aircraft plant (now Lockheed Martin), working until midnight.

While teaching for the district, Lee met and married her second husband, Dale T. Lee, an educator and principal of Morningside Elementary School. They shared 30 years of marriage.

She returned to school at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), earning a master's degree in counseling and guidance.

For more than two decades, she worked for the Fort Worth ISD as a teacher and later as a home/school counselor. Her role involved home visits to understand students' challenges and ensure they had essential resources, such as food and clothing. Despite her own challenges, she saw to it to help others.  

In 1977, Lee retired from FWISD, but her work was far from over.

Most of Opal Lee’s life has focused on educating others and advocating for those less fortunate. It’s because of her work that her story is part of modern-day Black history.

Opal Lee, the advocate

In retirement, Lee continued to help people and educate others. She began working with a local food bank, the Community Food Bank, which serves 500 families weekly. Lee founded Opal's Farm along the Trinity River to grow fresh produce for local food banks.

She became a founding member of Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity (CCHD), which provides housing assistance in Fort Worth. Inspired by FWISD alumna Lenora Rolla, Lee helped establish the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society, committed to preserving and celebrating African American history. She also led efforts to annually celebrate Juneteenth in Sycamore Park.

For Lee, Black History is a form of learning about the culture, where Black people come from, how far they’ve come, where they’re going, and passing it on.

“It’s exhilarating,” she said. “You learn so much – the good, the bad, the ugly. I think we ought to embrace it and share it with others [as to] not make the same mistakes that we made before.” 

Lee's advocacy extended to many boards and committees focused on housing, healthcare, and historical preservation.

At 89 years old, she felt she had not done enough. There was still more to do.

One step at a time, Lee set out on a movement to see Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. 

In 2016, Lee started walking 2.5 miles daily, from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to advocate for Juneteenth's national recognition. Along the way, people ensured she made it from city to city until she arrived at the nation’s capital. The distance symbolized the 2.5-year delay between President Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the moment when enslaved African Americans in Texas were informed of their official emancipation.

Lee’s walking campaign, “Opal’s Walk 2 DC,” continued until 2021; she walked a reported 1,400 miles. Along the way, she collected signatures for her petition to see Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. The goal was delayed, but it would not be denied. 

The Journey Continues

In 2021, with 1.5 million petition signatures ready for Congress, Lee received a call from the White House. Congress had passed legislation, and President Joseph Biden was set to sign Juneteenth into law as a national holiday

The call was an invitation for Lee to attend the June 17, 2021 signing ceremony. Lee stood alongside President Biden as Juneteenth officially became a national holiday.    

“When Juneteenth was finally recognized as a national holiday, I tell you I didn’t know how to act. I wanted to do a holy dance,” she said. “To be with the president of the United States and the vice president …I’ll tell you I was awestruck. I don’t know how to describe it except I’ll never forget it.”

Lee is affectionately known globally as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, but if you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s “everybody’s grandmother.” At 97 years young, the work continues for the civil and human rights advocate.

Since her first walk to DC, Lee has published a book, “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story,” educating youth about the history of the holiday. In 2022, members of Congress nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize but ultimately that honor went to Belarusian activist ​​Ales Bialiatski, human rights organizations Memorial and Center for Civil Liberties.  In 2023, a portrait of Lee was unveiled at the Texas Capitol, making her only the second African American Texan with their portrait permanently on display in the Texas Senate. A separate portrait, an oil painting by FWISD alumni and artist Sedrick Huckaby, also went up that same year in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. 

Lee is also leading fundraising efforts for the construction of the National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth.  

Today, Lee travels to events across the country encouraging children and adults to be a “committee of one” determined to change the world, one day at a time. 

“If people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love. I think each one of us should be responsible for changing somebody’s mind,” Lee said. “We are the people who could change things for the better … and we can’t leave it for somebody else. It’s our responsibility. I hope somebody will listen because I’m going to keep on walking and talking.” 

When asked what she wants to be remembered for, Lee said she wants people to know her as someone who chose to love everyone she connected with and who did what she could to help those in need.

“It didn't occur to me that I wasn’t supposed to help if I was needed,” she said. “Growing up I was taught to respect every culture that I came in contact with, and I hope I’ve done that.”

But for Lee, she’s not done.  There’s more to do in the collective efforts of addressing homelessness, joblessness, accessible health care, and climate change, she said. 

“You know when you get 97 years old, you’re supposed to be in a rocking chair waiting for the Lord,” Lee said. “He’s gonna have to catch me because there’s so much to do.”