'Grandmother of Juneteenth' Opal Lee Gifted New House, Built Where Her Family Home Was Burned Down 85 Years Ago

A racist mob burned down Opal Lee's family home in 1939; recently, Habitat for Humanity helped build the activist a new home on the same site

<p>Dia Dipasupil/Getty</p> Opal Lee in 2021

Dia Dipasupil/Getty

Opal Lee in 2021

This year, Juneteenth is even more meaningful for Opal Lee, affectionately known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth."

The 97-year-old received the keys to her new house this week, built where her family's Fort Worth, Texas, home was burned down by a racist mob 85 years ago.

Courtesy of various local Texas organizations including Trinity Habitat for Humanity and Texas Capital, Lee was given the property for $10. The house was built by HistoryMaker Homes and furnished by retailer JCPenney, according to CBS News.

Speaking about the home and the historic meaning behind it, Trinity Habitat for Humanity CEO Gage Yager, a friend of Lee's, said, "With tears of sadness for past atrocities and tears of joy for this momentous occasion, we are humbled and honored to welcome our friend Opal home. There truly is no place like home," per CBS News.

<p>Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty </p> Opal Lee in 2023

Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty

Opal Lee in 2023

Related: What to Know About Opal Lee, the 'Grandmother of Juneteenth' Who Helped Make Holiday a Reality

Lee tried for years to buy the land and rebuild her family home before discovering it had been purchased by Trinity Habitat for Humanity, according to the Associated Press. Until Lee called him, Yager wasn't aware of the history.

On June 19, 1939, White rioters set fire to the Lee's family home.

"People gathered. The papers say that it was 500 strong, and that the police couldn't control them," she previously told Variety. "My dad came home with a gun, and the police told him if he busted a cap, they'd let that mob have him."

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"If they had given us an opportunity to stay there and be their neighbors, they would have found out we didn't want any more than what they had — a decent place to stay, jobs that paid, [to be] able to go to school in the neighborhood, even if it was a segregated school," she continued. "We would have made good neighbors, but they didn't give us an opportunity. And I felt like everybody needs an opportunity."

As she received her keys this week — and promised open houses — Lee said, per the AP, "Everybody will know that this is going to be a happy place."

In 2016, Lee traveled 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to push for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday before the Obama administration and Congress, according to Variety.

<p>Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/Tribune News Service via Getty</p> Opal Lee in 2024

Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/Tribune News Service via Getty

Opal Lee in 2024

Related: Joe Biden Commemorates New Federal Holiday Juneteenth: 'A Day of Profound Weight and Power'

Five years later, on June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden formally signed it into law.

"I have to say to you, I have only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president — not because I did it, you did it, Democrats and Republicans," Biden said at the time. "It's an enormous, enormous honor."

Following the official passing of Juneteenth as a national holiday in 2021, Lee told CBS affiliate KTVT, "I am so delighted to know that suddenly we've got a Juneteenth. It's not a Texas thing or a Black thing. It's an American thing."

retired educator, Lee makes a symbolic two-and-a-half mile walk each year on Juneteenth, a distance that honors the two-and-a-half years it took for news of freedom to reach all enslaved people in the United States.

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