Opal Lee gets keys to her new Texas home 85 years after a racist mob drove her family from that lot

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Opal Lee, the 97-year-old Texan known for her push to make Juneteenth a national holiday, was given the keys Friday to her new home, which was built on the same tree-lined corner lot in Fort Worth that her family was driven from by a racist mob when she was 12.

“I'm so happy I don't know what to do,” said Lee, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of the home just before the ceremony.

The ceremony to welcome Lee into the newly completed home comes just days before the nation celebrates Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery across the U.S. that means so much to Lee. Several area groups came together to build and furnish the house, which was completed less than three months after the first wall was raised.

Lee said she plans to hold an open house so she can meet her new neighbors.

“Everybody will know that this is going to be a happy place,” she said.

This June 19 — Juneteenth — will be the 85th anniversary of the day a mob, angered that a Black family had moved in, began gathering outside the home her parents had just bought. As the crowd grew, her parents sent her and her siblings to a friend’s house several blocks away and then eventually left themselves.

Newspaper articles at the time said the mob that grew to about 500 people broke windows in the house and dragged furniture out into the street and smashed it. She has said her family didn't return to the house and her parents never talked about what happened that day. Instead, they just went to work in order to buy another home.

Lee has said it wasn't something she dwelled on either, but in recent years she began thinking of trying to get the lot back. After learning that Trinity Habitat for Humanity had bought the land, Lee called its CEO and her longtime friend, Gage Yager.

Yager has said it was not until that call several years ago when Lee asked if she could buy the lot that he learned the story of what happened to her family on June 19, 1939. The lot was sold to her for $10.

HistoryMaker Homes built the house at no cost to Lee while Texas Capital, a financial services company, provided funding for the home’s furnishings. JCPenney donated appliances, dinnerware and linens.

In recent years, Lee has become known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” after spending years rallying people to join her in what became a successful push to make June 19 a national holiday. The former teacher and a counselor in the school district has been tirelessly involved in her hometown of Fort Worth for decades, work that’s included establishing a large community garden.

During the ceremony Friday, Myra Savage, board president of Trinity Habitat for Humanity, told Lee: “Thank you for being a living example of what your home represents today, which is community, restoration, hope and light."

Lee has said she was so eager to move from the Fort Worth home she’s lived in for over half a century to the new house that she planned to just bring her toothbrush, which she had in hand on Friday.

“I just so want this community and others to work together to make this the best city, best state, the best country in the whole wide world. and we can do it together,” Lee said.


Stengle contributed to this report from Dallas.

Jamie Stengle And Kendria Lafleur, The Associated Press