Portrait of ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ on display in Texas Senate

Opal Lee, left, who helped make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday, poses with her portrait after it was unveiled in the Texas Senate Chamber, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(NewsNation) — A new portrait of the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” is now permanently displayed in the Texas Senate Chamber.

Many know 96-year-old Opal Lee as an advocacy powerhouse, but if you ask the lifelong Texan who she is, her website says she’ll say she’s “just a little old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody’s business.”

Lee played a key role in Juneteenth becoming recognized as a national holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, two months after the Confederacy had surrendered and about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in Southern states.

When Lee was just 12 years old, the NAACP Los Angeles says that a mob of 500 white supremacists set her Fort Worth home on fire, destroying it. No arrests were made.

That incident moved Lee into leading a life of activism. In 2016, she started “Opal’s Walk 2 DC.”

At age 89, she walked from her home in Texas all the way to Washington, D.C., in hopes of gaining support for making Juneteenth a national holiday.

Lee initially had a goal of getting 100,000 petition signatures, then delivered 1.5 million signatures to Congress in 2020. At the age of 94, she ended up standing by President Joe Biden’s side when he signed the bill creating Juneteenth National Independence Day in 2021.

Lee’s portrait was unveiled in the Texas Senate on Wednesday after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed for the honor. After Lee saw the portrait, she said she wanted “to do a whole dance.”

“It was beautiful,” she said. “I didn’t know I looked that good.”

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus told NewsNation affiliate KXAN’s multicultural reporter Jala Washington that Lee’s portrait is the second at the statehouse to honor an African American Texan.

“Change somebody’s mind because minds can be changed,” Lee told reporters after the ceremony. “If people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love, and it is up to you to do it.”

Lee has tirelessly dedicated decades of her life to civil rights activism. She was nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for her impact.

With Lee at the helm, the National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth is expected to break ground this year and be open by June 19, 2025.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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