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June 18, 2024 7 mins

An angry mob vandalizes a new home and then burns it to the ground. A young family barely escapes. Now 85 years later, after a lifetime of public service, the oldest daughter, now 97, moves back to that same piece of land, where another new home has been built as a gift from the community. It’s the full-circle life story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth, America’s second Independence Day. 

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Oh Man. Imagine you're just a kid when an angry
mob vandalizes your brand new house and burns it to
the ground. Your family barely escapes with their lives. Now,
eighty five years later, after a lifetime of public service,
you move back to that same piece of land where
another brand new home has been built as a gift

to you. I'm Patti Steele, the amazing full circle life
story of the grandmother of America's second Independence Day June tenth.
That's next on the back story. The backstory is back.
Born in nineteen twenty six, ople Lee grew up in Texas.

Her parents worked hard to give their kids a good
education and a comfortable home, but it was a difficult
time in a difficult place for a black family. Opal
now ninety seven, struggles to remember all the details, But
when she was twelve years old, her parents bought a
new house on a corner lot in Fort Worth. Now.

The problem is they were moving into a neighborhood that
was one hundred percent white until their arrival. It was
June nineteenth, nineteen thirty nine. Ironically June teenth, the anniversary
of the day in eighteen sixty five that federal troops
arrived to finally tell slaves in Texas that they had
been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half

years earlier. What Opel does remember from that evening is
the fear her family felt as a mob, angered that
a black family had moved in started to gather outside
their new home. The crowd grew and soon there were
hundreds of angry people across the street from their house.
Opel says, the policemen were all there, and when my

dad came home from work with a gun to protect us,
the police told him if he busted a cap, they
would let the mob have us. Can you imagine. Worried
for the safety of the children, her parents sent them
to a friend's house several blocks away, and then eventually,
under the cover of darkness, her parents had to leave

themselves to save their own lives. Newspapers from that time
said the mob grew to about five hundred individuals. Imagine
the terror as the mob broke windows in the house.
Then they rampaged through it, dragging furniture out into the
street and smashing it to bits. Finally, they burned the

house to the ground. The family never returned to that
house or what was left of it, and Opal says,
our parents never ever discussed it with us, not once. Instead,
they just went to work in order to Buias another home.
So I buried the whole thing for so long. But
the date of the attack, June teenth, would later come

to define Ople's life, and she channeled those kind of
hidden emotions into activism. Opal went on to get a
BA in education and a master's degree in counseling. She
dedicated her life to helping people in her community. On
top of that, aware of what had happened to her
family on June teenth, the nineteenth of June back in

nineteen thirty nine, she was also very aware of the
original June teenth, and she wanted to raise awareness about
the day that commemorates black American's freedom from enslavement. So
in twenty sixteen, at the age of eighty nine, she
began a walk that took her from Fort Worth, Texas,
fourteen hundred miles across the nation to Washington, d C.

As she campaigned for June teenth to become a national holiday.
Along the way, she stopped in towns and cities, sharing
stories of her ancestors and the difficulties they'd faced. She
spoke about the importance of June teenth, insisting that the
fight for freedom had to be acknowledged and remembered. She

was joined by supporters from all walks of life, and
she got a lot of national media attention. Opal became
known as the Grandmother of June teenth, and five years
later she was finally able to celebrate with President Biden
by her side, as Congress made Juneteenth a national holiday
in twenty twenty one. Now at that point she was

ninety four, but she wasn't done, She says. She began
thinking again about the attack on her family's home all
those years ago, which had inspired her lifelong activism. She
decided she wanted to try to buy the land where
her home had once stood, on that tree lined corner
lot in Fort Worth, Texas. It turns out the landowner

was Trinity Habitat for Humanity, an organization she had helped
found years earlier. Not only did they sell her the
lot for just ten dollars to make it legal, but
with donations from corporation and individuals, they built her a
beautiful new house and completely furnished it. She just moved

in this past June sixth, Ople now ninety seven, years old, said,
I was so happy I could have done a holy dance.
I was awestruck everything was done. The only thing I
had to bring with me was my toothbrush. Is that
the most beautiful full circle story you've ever heard? Terrorized

and run out of your home which was destroyed by
an angry mob as a child, only to move back
to the same property eighty five years later thanks to
a gift from the community. Ople Lee's life is a
testament to the impact one person can have on the
world through passion and determination, and she's a great reminder

that it's never too late to fight for what you
believe in. Said Opel. This world should be won where
there's no strife, and I don't know how that'll happen,
but I'm looking forward to being a peaceful old lady.
What an angel. I hope you're enjoying the Backstory with

Patty Steele. Follow or subscribe for free to get new
episodes delivered automatically to you, and feel free to DM
me if you have a story you'd like me to cover.
On Facebook, It's Patty Steele and on Instagram Real Patty Steele.
I'm Patty Steele. The backstory is a production of iHeartMedia,

Premiere Networks, the Elvis Durant Group, and Steel Trap Productions.
Our producer is Doug Fraser. Our writer Jake Kushner. We
have new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Feel free to
reach out to me with comments and even story suggestions
on Instagram at Real Patty Steele and on Facebook at
Patty Steele. Thanks for listen listening to the Backstory with

Patty Steele, the pieces of history you didn't know you
needed to know.
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