Opal Lee gets keys to new home 85 years after Texas mob drove family out

FORT WORTH, Texas — Opal Lee has waited a long time for the keys placed in her hand on Friday.

The Texas 97-year-old known as the “grandmother” of Juneteenth was presented with the keys to her new home, which was built for her on a very special corner lot in Fort Worth, according to The Associated Press.

The property is the same lot that her parents bought 85 years ago, only to be driven out of their home days later by a white mob incensed that a Black family had moved into their neighborhood.

“I’m so happy I don’t know what to do,” a contented Lee said as she sat in a rocker on her new front porch.

The house was move-in ready just in time for Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery that Lee herself was instrumental in making a federal holiday.

The June 19 holiday is also the 85th anniversary of the day that angry mob forced the Lee family from their home, the AP reported.

Lee was 12 years old in June 1939 when her family moved into their new home on East Annie Street, which up to that moment had been an all-white neighborhood. It was four days later — on Juneteenth — that the mob struck, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

News articles at the time reported that up to 500 people showed up at the home. Police officers responded to the scene but did nothing to control the mob.

Lee told the Star-Telegram in 2022 that her father came home from work with a gun.

“Police told him, ‘If you bust a cap, we will let this mob have you,’” Lee said. “Our parents sent us to friends several blocks away, and they left on the cusp of darkness.”

After Lee’s parents left, the mob ransacked their home, pulling furniture onto the lawn and smashing and destroying it.

Her parents would never discuss what happened. They worked to buy their family a new home, and the Lee family went on with their lives.

Lee, who harbored a dream of someday owning her family’s property again, worked for years to ensure that Juneteenth was recognized, the Star-Telegram reported.

June 19, 1865, was the day that Union soldiers in Galveston enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially ended slavery. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the document more than two years earlier.

The holiday had long been celebrated in Texas but did not become a state holiday until 1980, according to the newspaper.

President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021. Earlier this year, he awarded Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions.

Lee, meanwhile, was serving on the board of the Trinity Habitat for Humanity in 2020 when she learned the organization had purchased the property her family once owned. She called Gage Yager, the CEO of the nonprofit, and asked about buying it for herself.

Yager sold the land to Lee for $10, the Star-Telegram reported.

HistoryMaker Homes teamed with Habitat and built Lee’s new home at no cost to her, the AP reported. Texas Capital, a finance company, provided the furnishings and JCPenney donated appliances, dishes and linens.

A large crowd once again gathered at Lee’s tree-lined property on Friday, but instead of hatred, they exuded love for the well-known activist and community leader.

Myra Savage, president of Trinity Habitat’s board, praised Lee for her tireless dedication to the community over the decades.

“Thank you for being a living example of what your home represents today, which is community, restoration, hope and light,” Savage said, according to the AP.

Yager used the opportunity to announce the formation of Opal Lee Legacy Homes, which will raise donations to help Trinity Habitat build 100 homes in Lee’s honor. The Star-Telegram reported that 10% of the funds raised with go toward construction of a National Juneteenth Museum planned for the Historic Southside neighborhood where Lee lives.

“What I want to have is to have all these homes built when Opal is not with us anymore,” Yager said. “I want to have all these homes built when I’m not with us anymore.

“That’s her legacy: Don’t give up, seek justice, help those in need and love your neighbor.”

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