Opal (Flake) Lee is a retired teacher and activist known as the “Juneteenth Grandmother.” Flake was born in Marshall, Texas on October 7, 1926, to Otis Flake and Mattie Broadus. Lee’s family home was destroyed in a fire when she was a child, and her father left town to find work but did not return. When Flake was ten years old, her mother relocated the family to Fort Worth, where she attended Cooper Street Elementary School. When Otis Flake learned that the family was in Fort Worth, he decided to join them.
Mattie Broadus was hit by a city bus and was awarded a settlement, which the family used to buy a home at 940 East Annie Street on Fort Worth’s south side in June 1939. They were the neighborhood’s first Black family, prompting an angry mob of 500 white residents to burn down the house on June 19, 1939.
Flake graduated from I.M. after the family relocated. Terrell High School was founded in 1943. She married, had four children, and then divorced after five years. Flake returned to Marshall to attend Wiley College. While attending college during the day, she worked as a maid at the Texas Hotel with her mother. Flake received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953 and returned to Fort Worth to teach at Amanda McCoy Elementary School for $2,000 per year. To make ends meet, she took a second job at the Convair aircraft plant.
Flake married Dale Lee, the principal of Morningside Elementary, in 1967, and then enrolled at the newly desegregated North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), where she earned a master’s degree in counseling and guidance in 1968. Lee then worked for the Fort Worth Independent School District as an educator and home school counselor before retiring in 1977.
Lee, 51, started a new job at a community food bank in the Jax beer distribution building. When the building burned down, she and other community workers relocated to a warehouse, where the rent was initially $4,000 per month. However, after a year, the owner donated the building after realizing the importance of the food bank to the community. The community food bank has fed an average of 500 families each week for the past five decades. Lee lives near the warehouse and has a 13-acre farm where he grows food for the food bank.
Lee has been involved in the preservation of local African American history since the 1970s, which eventually led to the establishment of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which was founded in April 1977 by 21 charter members, including Lee. The society has organized the annual Juneteenth celebrations since its inception. Every year, thousands of people gathered at Sycamore Park to mark the official end of slavery in Texas. Lee frequently walked two and a half miles as part of the celebration, representing the number of years before Texas enslaved people realized they were free.
However, in 2016, Lee, then 89 years old, walked from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. to deliver 1.6 million signatures in support of making Juneteenth a national holiday. She began her 1,360-mile walk in September 2016, collecting pledges and signatures along the way, and arrived in Washington in January 2017. Her Juneteenth walk reignited calls to make the date a federal holiday. Lee was present at The White House on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday.