By Steven Monacelli
Shortly after Juneteenth was officially declared a national holiday last year, nearly 40 African American women’s organizations across Tarrant County banded together to hold an award ceremony honoring the efforts of Ms. Opal Lee, an educator and leading activist in the movement to nationally recognize Juneteenth — the celebration that marks the day when slaves in Texas finally learned they had been declared free two years earlier. Dozens of community leaders gathered on July 18 to honor Ms. Lee, including Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Congressman Marc Veasey. The outpouring of monetary support for the event was so overwhelming that several thousand dollars were able to be set aside for a scholarship fund in Ms. Lee’s name.
Those scholarships were awarded on Tuesday January 4 in the Shamblee Branch of the Fort Worth Library. A few dozen community members gathered to witness the ceremony and catch a glimpse of a real hometown hero. Some even took selfies with Ms. Lee, this author included. Four young women attending Wiley College, Lee’s alma mater, were each awarded $2,000 to go toward their school expenses, and Ms. Lee herself was there to hand them out.
At the wise age of 94, Ms. Lee has hardly slowed down, nor has she lost her sense of humor. “I want to thank all you young people here today,” Opal said as she looked around the room during the scholarship ceremony. “Because anyone under 94 is young.”
The scholarship selection process and the event were organized by a committee of Black women leaders in Fort Worth who have been inspired by Ms. Lee’s accomplishments. They hope the scholarship will help encourage others to follow in her footsteps. Their efforts were supported by the Tarrant County Education Foundation and the United Negro College Fund.
Keisha Milton, one of the recipients of the scholarship, was thrilled to receive it. “It means the world to me, particularly as a returning student.” Milton started college years ago, but dropped out when life got in the way. She had a daughter, and now that her daughter has gone off to college, Milton has decided to finish her degree. “And when I finish, I want to get a masters degree and keep going.”
Ms. Lee took the opportunity to express what the scholarship means to her. “We are asking you to be the leaders that we need,” Ms. Lee said in a speech to the students. “Having Juneteenth as a national holiday, that’s a plus. But we have so much work to do. We have to tackle an education system that ain’t got no books that will tell you about Juneteenth. We’ve got books that give you the impression we were happy picking cotton. I’ve picked some cotton. And I wasn’t happy doing it.”
Ms. Lee’s impact on her community, as well as the nation, is difficult to overstate. A long time activist, Ms. Lee was a founding member of several community organizations in Tarrant County dedicated to the advancement of the Black community and of disadvantaged individuals of any race or creed. In 2019, she helped start a community farm dedicated to addressing food aparthied in Tarrant County. And in 2020, her years of advocacy culminated in the passage of the Juneteenth Independence Day Act.
“She has made all the difference not only in Fort Worth but all across this country,” said Mattie Peterson Compton, one of the leaders of the scholarship committee. “Powerful women produce powerful results.”
Ms. Lee’s legacy will not be forgotten any time soon. In addition to her contributions at the national level, she will continue to play an important role in the Juneteenth celebrations in Fort Worth which in 2022 will play out over the entire month of June. She will also be honored at the new National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth which is planned to be completed in 2024.
To learn more about the Fort Worth Juneteenth Celebrations, visit www.juneteenthftw.com.