(CNN) — More than 80 years have passed since a racist mob destroyed Opal Lee’s family home in Fort Worth, Texas, but the 97-year-old said she still remembers the White crowd that forced her family out of their home.
“Our parents worked real hard … and then they bought this house on Annie Street,” Lee said of her childhood home. “My mom had it fixed up so nice.”
But shortly after moving in, Lee told CNN, a crowd of White people began to gather, angry that a Black family had purchased a house in the neighborhood.
“Would you believe on the 19th of June, people started gathering? And there were policemen, and they didn’t do anything,” Lee told CNN. “Our parents sent us to friends several blocks away. (Then) they left under cover of darkness.”
“Those people threw out the furniture. They did despicable things,” she said. The mob destroyed Lee’s home, burning it to the ground, she said.
“Our parents never ever discussed it with us, not once,” Lee said, adding, “I buried the whole thing for so long.”
But the date of the attack – Juneteenth – would later come to define Lee’s life. Instead of holding onto feelings of animosity, Lee said she channeled her emotions into activism. She dedicated her life to helping people in her community and to raising awareness about the importance of Juneteenth, which commemorates Black Americans’ freedom from enslavement.
In 2016, at the age of 89, Lee began a walk from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC, to campaign for Juneteenth to become a national holiday. She became known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” and after years of campaigning, Lee was finally able to celebrate Congress making Juneteenth a holiday in 2021, CNN previously reported.
But in recent years, Lee told CNN she began thinking again about the attack on her family that spurred her lifetime of activism. She decided she wanted to try to buy the land where her home once stood.
So, she called the landowner, Trinity Habitat for Humanity, where, as it happened, she used to serve on the board of directors. Lee said she asked CEO Gage Yager a friend she’d known for years, if he would sell her the property. And he said no.
“He was going to give it to me!” Lee said. “They brought the plans to me, where Habitat planned to build a house for me on that lot. I tell you, how about that coming full circle?”
Yager told CNN, “We concluded with Opal and the terrible story, the very best thing to do would be to give her that lot to do whatever she wanted to on it or with it. It doesn’t right the wrong, but it does bring it full circle.”
Trinity Habitat broke ground on the land in October and has drafted renderings of Lee’s future home, Yager said. The organization is currently working with partners to raise money to build the house, he added.
Lee said she would like her current home – where she’s lived for 50 years – to become a museum. But she’s also looking forward to reclaiming the land that belongs to her family.
“I wanted to do a holy dance,” she said. “I’m a happy camper, girl, you cannot believe how happy I am!”
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