85 years after a racist mob drove Opal Lee's family away, she's getting a new home on the same spot

When Opal Lee was 12, a racist mob, angered that a Black family had moved in, drove her family out of their Texas home

Jamie Stengle
Saturday 23 March 2024 04:08 GMT

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When Opal Lee was 12, a racist mob drove her family out of their Texas home. Now, the 97-year-old community activist is getting closer to moving into a brand new home on the very same tree-lined corner lot in Fort Worth.

“I’m not a person who sheds tears often, but I've got a few for this project,” said Lee, who was one of the driving forces behind Juneteenth becoming a national holiday.

A wall-raising ceremony was held Thursday at the site, with Lee joining others in lifting the framework for the first wall into place. It's expected that the house will be move-in ready by June 19 — the day of the holiday marking the end of slavery in the U.S. that means so much to Lee.

This June 19 will also 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.

“Those people tore that place asunder,” Lee said.

Her family did not return to the house and her parents never talked about what happened that day, she said.

“My God-fearing, praying parents worked extremely hard and they bought another home," she said. “It didn’t stop them. They didn’t get angry and get frustrated, they simply knew that we had to have a place to stay and they got busy finding one for us.”

She said it was not something she dwelled on either. “I really just think I just buried it,” she said.

In recent years though, 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 said it was not until that call three 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.

“I’d known Opal for an awfully long time but I didn’t know anything about that story," Yager said.

After he made sure the lot was not already promised to another family, he called Lee and told her it would be hers for $10. He said at the wall-raising ceremony that it was heartening to see a mob of people full of love gathered in the place where a mob full of hatred had once gathered.

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.

At the ceremony Thursday, Nelson Mitchell, the CEO of HistoryMaker Homes, told Lee: “You demonstrate to us what a difference one person can make.”

Mitchell’s company is building the home at no cost to Lee while the philanthropic arm of Texas Capital, a financial services company, is providing funding for the home’s furnishings.

Lee said she's eager to make the move from the home she's lived in for over half a century to the new house.

“I know my mom would be smiling down, and my Dad. He’d think: ’Well, we finally got it done,'" she said.

“I just want people to understand that you don’t give up," Lee said. "If you have something in mind — and it might be buried so far down that you don’t remember it for years — but it was ours and I wanted it to be ours again.”

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Associated Press journalist Kendria LaFleur contributed to this report.

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