Dr. Opal Lee, the treasured 96-year-old Fort Worth activist known as "The Grandmother of Juneteenth," now has her portrait hanging alongside other Texas heroes in the state Capitol in Austin.
Lee's portrait was unveiled in a ceremony in the Texas Senate chambers on Wednesday, February 8. According to reports from inside the chamber, the crowd gave her resounding applause.
Lee becomes just the second Black American whose portrait hangs on the walls of the state Capitol, behind Barbara Jordan, the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and first Black congresswoman from the South. It's also reportedly the first time the Texas Senate has hung a new portrait in the chamber.
"This will be a historic and significant day in the history of Texas and for the Texas Senate," State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) told Austin TV station KVUE. "Ms. Lee will forever be an example of a person willing to work tirelessly for a cause they truly believed in. She shows also that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams!"
Dean of the Texas Senate John Whitmire (D-Houston) tweeted photos with Lee at the unveiling and wrote, "A historic day in the Texas Senate celebrating a truly remarkable Texan. Opal Lee proves that one person can make a difference."
As for the woman affectionately known as "Ms. Opal" around Fort Worth, she told DFW's Fox 4 that she was humbled at the honor.
"I don’t know how to feel," she said. "I pinch myself to be sure it’s really happening, you know? My portrait next to Barbara Jordan’s in the Senate, in the Capitol!"
A recognition of Juneteenth is something Lee has dedicated much of her later life to. In 2016, a then-89-year-old launched Opal’s Walk 2 DC, a two-an-a-half-mile walk that evoked the two-and-a-half years it took for slaves in Texas to learn they were free. She gathered 1.5 million signatures on a petition to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
She was by President Joe Biden's side at the White House when he signed a law declaring Juneteenth a holiday on June 17, 2021. The Juneteenth National Independence Day, which commemorates freedom for the enslaved via the abolition of slavery in the United States, became the 12th legal federal holiday — the first new one since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983.
Lee also has worked to make Fort Worth home to the National Juneteenth Museum. It is planned for the Rosedale Street spot that currently houses Lee’s Fort Worth Juneteenth Museum, which has served the community for nearly two decades, including as a filming location for the 2020 movie Miss Juneteenth.
In 2022, Lee was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his nomination letter, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) wrote, "As an advocate, Ms. Lee’s hopes to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday went far beyond just recognizing the day that the final enslaved people were notified of their freedom. It is also a symbol of her hope that we as Americans can come together and unify against social issues that are plagues on our nation such as homelessness, education inequality, and food insecurity to name a few."