85 years ago, a racist mob targeted Opal Lee’s home. Her new home is a symbol of community

Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, sat down on the front porch of her new home on East Annie Street on Friday with a toothbrush in her left hand and a smile on her face.

In March, a wall raising ceremony was held for the home in the Historic Southside neighborhood, the same location where a white mob ransacked her family’s home and burned their belongings. She joked a few months ago that the only thing she would bring from her hold home to her new home was her toothbrush.

Lee, 97, says her journey of hardships could have turned her mean and bitter, as she has seen happen to others. Instead, she said, she stayed close to her faith and learned that things happen for a reason. To see the construction of her new home is a dream come true, she says.

“I want people to know what having a home means to a family,” Lee told the Star-Telegram. “The togetherness, the camaraderie, and the community. So I’m happy to be here.”

The home was funded by Texas Capital Bank, Trinity Habitat for Humanity and HistoryMaker Homes. Texas Capital Bank provided funding for furnishings, and HistoryMaker Homes built the home at no cost to Lee.

Lee was able to help personalize her home, which is about 1,700 square feet, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of the rooms was converted to a library, with bookshelves throughout. Lee is an avid reader.

Nelson Mitchell, CEO of HistoryMaker Homes, says the best days for people in his company are when they hand the keys to customers and tell them to make a house into a home. Every home built for families is important, but building one for Lee was a privilege, he said.

Media gather at the new house for Opal Lee on Friday.
Media gather at the new house for Opal Lee on Friday.

“When we had the opportunity to build Dr. Opal Lee’s house, one of our nation’s most important civil rights leaders, that’s a pretty special job to be presented with,” Mitchell said. “And so we jumped at the chance to be involved with a woman that has been an example of bravery and courage and what she represents and what she’s fought for her entire life.”

In 1939, when Lee was 12, her family moved into what was then a white neighborhood. Four days later — on Juneteenth — hundreds of rioters showed up. Police came but did not control the mob.

“My dad came from work and he had a gun,” Lee told the Star-Telegram in 2022. “Police told him, ‘If you bust a cap, we will let this mob have you.’ Our parents sent us to friends several blocks away, and they left on the cusp of darkness. Those people went ahead and pulled our furniture and burned it. They did despicable things.”

Her parents never discussed it afterward, and Lee spent the rest of her life trying to forget the painful memory.

Gail Ryan, left, shares a laugh with her longtime friend Opal Lee on the porch of Lee’s new home.
Gail Ryan, left, shares a laugh with her longtime friend Opal Lee on the porch of Lee’s new home.

Lee worked for years for national recognition of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had signed more than two years earlier. Juneteenth had long been commemorated in Texas — becoming a state holiday in 1980. In Fort Worth, more than 30,000 people celebrated Juneteenth in 1975 in Sycamore Park.

The Historic Southside neighborhood is also the future home of a National Juneteenth Museum.

Lee had hoped she would one day own the land where her childhood home once stood. In 2020, when she was a board member of Trinity Habitat for Humanity, she inquired about purchasing the lot from the organization. Gage Yager, chief executive of Trinity Habitat for Humanity, sold it to Lee for $10.

Gage Yager, the CEO of Trinity Habitat For Humanity, embraces Opal Lee during a celebration to commemorate Lee’s new house at Historic Southside in Fort Worth on Friday.
Gage Yager, the CEO of Trinity Habitat For Humanity, embraces Opal Lee during a celebration to commemorate Lee’s new house at Historic Southside in Fort Worth on Friday.

Yager announced at Friday’s celebration the formation of Opal Lee Legacy Homes, an idea that was formed around last October during the groundbreaking ceremony. It will call on individuals, businesses, churches, and foundations to raise money to help Trinity Habitat for Humanity build 100 homes in recognition of Lee. It will also include using 10 percent of the money raised to sponsor the National Juneteenth Museum.

Yager says Lee has worked tirelessly to seek justice for the homeless and downtrodden. He and Trinity Habitat for Humanity created the initiative to continue her legacy, so everyone could channel their inner Opal Lee.

“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.”