Oral History: Opal Lee “People Have Shackles on Their Minds…”by Greater Diversity News June 18, 2021
Opal Lee was born October 7, 1926 in Marshall, Texas. Her mother moved to Fort Worth when she was ten years old. She attended Cooper Street Elementary School and graduated from Historic I.M. Terrell High School in 1943 at the age of 16. She didn’t go straight to college after graduation which was a grave disappointment to her mother, but did eventually get there after getting married, having four children and getting divorced. She earned her Bachelors of Arts degree in 1953 from Wiley College (now Wiley University) and returned to Fort Worth to teach at Amanda McCoy Elementary School for 15 years where she was regarded as one of the best educators in her field. At night she worked at Convair (now Lockheed Martin) to support her children. She later obtained her Master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance from North Texas State University and served as Home/School Counselor for Fort Worth Independent School District until her retirement in 1977.
Retiring gave Mrs. Lee the time and opportunity to become even more involved in the community. She was one of the founding members of Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity (CCHD) which was formed to assist the economically disadvantage in finding housing in Fort Worth. She volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, and served as a member of the board. She now serves on Habitat’s Land Acquisition Board. With Lenora Rolla as its inspiration, Mrs. Lee helped establish the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Fort Worth Black populace. She served on the Historic & Cultural Landmarks Commission, AIDS Outreach committee, Evans Avenue Business Association, Good Samaritans, and Riverside Neighborhood Advisory Council. She has served as Precinct Chair for District 8 for over 30 years, a member of Grandmother’s Club, and Ethel Ransom Humanitarian & Cultural Club. She is an active member in her church, Baker Chapel AME where she serves as a Missionary, church school teacher, assistant teacher and Deaconess.
At 93 years of age, Mrs. Opal Lee still finds time to be a part of the above organizations while still leading two very large projects – the Annual Fort Worth Juneteenth Celebration and the urban farming project.
Under the direction of Mrs. Lee, The Community Food Bank, formerly
the Metroplex Food Bank established in 1982, has literally risen from the ashes of an arson fire of its former facility. Mrs. Opal still personally delivers boxes of food to the elderly and shut in as she did when the former food bank was unable to operate.
The Community Food Bank now services more than 500 families a week at the generously donated 43,000 square foot facility located at 3000 Galvez Street in Fort Worth. Her continued efforts to better the lives of the unemployed or recently incarcerated has led her to develop a 5 acre farming project, Opal’s Farm, to train citizens in the area of husbandry providing education, jobs, volunteer opportunities and fresh vegetables for the community.
Tarrant Regional Water District granted a lease of 13 acres of land to be used as an urban farm. Opal’s Farm will address the issues of food scarcity and access while providing jobs, job training, entrepreneurial opportunity, and education for local neighborhoods. Since its ribbon cutting on February 15, 2019, we have produced over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce and have been able to give to the community food banks and participate in farmers markets.
Ms. Opal Lee has been devoted to preserving the history and timeline of the emancipation of Texas slaves and the unifying effect of understanding that “None of us are free, until we are all free.”
We have developed a full length documentary that will educate viewers on the importance of Juneteenth and highlight Opals Walk 2 DC, Ms. Opal’s symbolic walking campaign at 90 years old to Washington, DC to make June 19th a National Day of Observance.
Finally, her single greatest passion exemplifies her sense of community spirit. For over 40 years, Mrs. Lee, along with the help of many others, strives every year to keep and expand the celebration of our “Day of Freedom” June 19, 1865 when slaves in Texas found out they were free. Her vision for Juneteenth has grown from a single day community picnic at Sycamore Park to a multi-day celebration in downtown Fort Worth that includes a parade, breakfast of prayer, honors banquet, Miss Juneteenth Pageant, Health & Job Fair, 5K Run, Art Exhibit, Golf Tournament, Gospel Festival, food vendors, children’s play area and much, much more. She is part of the NJOF a national movement started by the late Dr. Ronald Myers to have Juneteenth declared a National Holiday much like Flag Day or Presidents Day. There are 47 states that recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. in 2016 at age 90, she started a walking campaign all across the nation to bring attention and awareness to the need for a National Day of Observance for Juneteenth. Since she knows she won’t be around forever, she is grooming enthusiastic young people to pass the torch to when the time comes. Mrs. Lee has received many awards and commendations in her life time, but values her ability to affect positive change in the lives of those around her more than any accolades that can be given to her.
The above video recaps the incredible impact that Ms. Opal Lee has made on her community, recognized by Visit Fort Worth.
Awards and Commendations
August 24, 2019 – 400th Anniversary of 1619 Slaves Landing
June 29, 2020 – 2020 Elaine Brown Community Advocacy Award from National Coalition of 100 Black Women – Dallas Metropolitan Chapter
August 28, 2020 – 2020 Power of Influence Awards – Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Washington DC
2020 Story Terrace Unsung Hero Award
2020 National Philanthropy Day Award – AFP Fort Worth
2020 Visit Fort Worth annual Hospitality Award
January 17th, 2021: US Voice of Peace Honoree – International Peace Honors virtual event.
February 5th, 2021: http://fortworth.com/opallee