Mar 22, 2024 - News

A white mob burned down Opal Lee's house in 1939. At 97, she's moving back.

Several people standing in a line with a woman and an electric saw

Opal Lee's best day included some "holy" dancing and watching the structure of her future house go up. Photo: Courtesy of Trinity Habitat for Humanity

Opal Lee was just a girl in 1939, when a white mob burned down her family's home in Fort Worth.

  • Habitat for Humanity volunteers are now building a new house on the same spot so the 97-year-old known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth can live out the rest of her life there.

Why it matters: Lee has shown the world what it "really means to live with love and forgiveness and total inspiration," Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said at an event at 940 E. Annie St.

  • "This is our chance to completely start over and give her the home that she so deserves to be proud of, in her community," Parker said.

How it happened: Habitat for Humanity acquired the plot in 2021. Lee reached out soon after, asking to buy the land from Habitat so it could return to her family.

  • Habitat secured funding from Texas Capital Foundation and chose HistoryMaker Homes to build Lee a new house.
  • Lee got to pick out the design elements of the house, and will get the furnishings paid for.
People lifting up the wooden framing of a house
Habitat for Humanity volunteers got right to work after this front wall was raised. Photo: Courtesy of Trinity Habitat for Humanity

What's new: Dozens of supporters gathered on the plot Thursday to watch Lee, her family, city officials and the project's key contributors raise the front wall of what will be her new home.

  • "Hate tore the house down, love is going to build the house," Trinity Habitat for Humanity CEO Gage Yager said.
  • Lee said it was the happiest day of her life. "I'm so delighted. I could do a holy dance, but the kids say when I try, I'm twerkin' — whatever that is," she told the crowd.

Flashback: In 2016, at age 89, Lee walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to push to get Juneteenth named a national holiday.

  • In 2021, President Biden signed a bipartisan bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Zoom out: Lee has remained active in her calls for justice and equity, hosting an annual Walk for Freedom, writing letters to people in power and adding new goals to her already-long list.

  • With her mobility deteriorating with age, time is as important as ever.
  • "It's heartwarming because she is here, and she can see [the house]. She knows that her dream is coming to fruition," JoAnn Harris, Lee's daughter, tells Axios.

What's next: Habitat for Humanity hopes to finish the house by Juneteenth this year.

  • Lee says she only plans to bring her toothbrush when she moves in, her way of starting fresh.

The bottom line: "I hope I can keep on walking and talking and telling people that we are all one people. All one people. And the sooner we accept that, the better," she says.

The framing of a house with "If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love" on a banner to the right
Opal Lee's family hopes she will live long enough to thoroughly enjoy this house when it's built. Photo: Naheed Rajwani-Dharsi/Axios
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