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Opal Lee, Grandmother of Juneteenth, moves into new house on site of burned childhood home

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — It was June 19, 1939, when Opal Lee remembers her parents sending her to a friend’s house several blocks away when an angry mob showed up at her family’s home to protest Black residents moving into the Fort Worth, Texas, neighborhood. Lee was 12 years old.

That night, the mob burned down the Lee family home. It was 74 years after enslaved Black people in the U.S. found out they were freed.

Now, 85 years later, Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth for her efforts in getting the date recognized as a national holiday, has received keys to a new home built on the site of the childhood home that was reduced to ashes.

“It amazes me because we would have been good neighbors, you know,” Lee told ABC News’ GMA3 co-anchor DeMarco Morgan during the first interview inside her new home. 

“They didn’t see it that way,” Lee said of that time during the Jim Crow era.

Lee, 97, is known for her civil rights activism and her Juneteenth appeal. In 2016, she walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the date.

She found success in her efforts when President Joe Biden signed the June 19 holiday into law in 2021. Earlier this year, Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom honoring her work to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the nation. She attended the Juneteenth celebration on the White House lawn last week.

Reflecting on the legacy of her work, Lee looks to the young people to take the next steps.

“I’m wanting young people to realize that we can make a difference. And so I’m asking them to make themselves a committee of one to change somebody’s mind,” Lee said. “We know people who aren’t on the same page will change their minds; not gonna happen in a day. You’ll have to work at it. But if people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”

For years, she tried to find out who owned the land where her family’s home was burned down. Eventually, she found out it was owned by Habitat for Humanity, an organization for which Lee had previously served on the board.

When she tried to buy it, the nonprofit declined to sell, instead giving her the land and plans for building a new home on it for free.

Now, in the new house — furnished with a mix of new and some of her own vintage pieces, decorated with handpainted pictures of Lee and her family, and completed with a fully stocked fridge — Lee says she is humbled and grateful to have the home.

“My mom would say, Baby Opal – that’s what she called me – it’s about time. It’s about time,” Lee said.

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