The Texas Senate on Thursday recognized Fort Worth’s Opal Lee for her efforts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. During the proceedings, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he’d recommend her portrait hang in the Senate chambers.
Lee, 94, was at President Joe Biden’s side in June as he signed a bill designating the new federal holiday commemorating the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3, declaring the freedom of slaves in Texas. The announcement came nearly two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee has long advocated for June 19 to be a federal holiday, walking 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington and organizing an online petition in support of national recognition of the holiday. Tarrant County Sen. Beverly Powell brought to the floor Senate Resolution 19 recognizing Lee, the “grandmother of Juneteenth.”
Texas senators took turns thanking Lee from as she listened on. Taking a moment to address the lawmakers, Lee said she was flabbergasted and humbled.
“Getting Juneteenth to be a national holiday is a we thing, not a me thing, but a we thing, and there’s so much more to do. So much more,” she said. “We must get the stories to the children. … We’ve got to let people know what actually happened, so it doesn’t happen again. So we can heal from it.”
Lee was joined in the Senate by members of her family. Powell said Lee has been a “Texas hero for decades” as she recounted Lee’s work in the community. She also discussed how when Lee was 12 a white mob set fire to Lee’s family home on Juneteenth.
“Because of her determination, every year, American people will pause now on June 19th to remember that dark part of our history and to celebrate what’s possible when we unite, when we become, as Ms. Opal says, ‘one people,’” said Powell, a Burleson Democrat.
Sen. Kelly Hancock, a North Richland Hills Republican, said those in Fort Work know Lee for more than her work to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“She has in our neighborhoods, in our backyards, in our hometown, always been about those in need,” he said. “Those in need of an education, she has taught. Those in need of encouragement, she encouraged. Those in need of nourishment, she nourished. And she didn’t just start these things and get them started and leave and abandon, but she persisted.”
“You are due flowers today,” Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, told Lee.
Patrick told Lee that her portrait should be hanging in the Texas Senate chamber “for all of eternity.”
After leaving the Senate chamber to greet family members and take photos, Lee told the Star-Telegram she was numb as she listened to the words about her from Texas senators. And of the portrait announcement, Lee said she was going to “pinch myself and see if I’m awake.”
“People aren’t born hating,” she said, asked about her message to folks back home. “And if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”
Thursday’s recognition comes during what has been a contentious special session after House Democrats left for Washington to block legislation they say would disenfranchise voters. Nine Senate Democrats left for Washington in solidarity and have since returned to Austin.
“Ms. Opal united 31 hearts in the state Senate today and a host of other staff members and the lieutenant governor. We’re so grateful for your presence today,” Powell said to Lee. “We needed a dose of Ms. Opal.”