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 has become 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.
Jess W. Coleman was the artist commissioned for the painting.
Opal Lee at the portrait unveiling.Photo courtesy of National Juneteenth Museum
"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 ahead of the unveiling. "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 ceremony 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," 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.
Opal Lee talks to reporters at the portrait unveilingPhoto courtesy of National Juneteenth Museum.
Lee also has worked to make Fort Worth home to the National Juneteenth Museum. It is planned for the location 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.
Lee talked about the museum at her February 8 portrait unveiling, telling reporters, "Years ago, I had a vision that one day Juneteenth would be celebrated by all…I want Juneteenth to be a day that is never forgotten. In 2025 we plan to open the National Juneteenth Museum. I want all of you to come visit it. It's going to be a place for people to travel from all around the world to collaborate, share ideas and learn about one of the greatest moments in history… The day our ancestors learned about our bridge to freedom and the power of change.”
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."