AUSTIN (KXAN) — Opal Lee has spunk and fight in her that’s gained national momentum over the last several years.
So much so that the 96-year-old is now recognized as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” playing a fundamental role in getting the day recognized as a national holiday.
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States in the late 1800s.
On Wednesday, Lee’s portrait was unveiled in front of a crowd in the Texas Senate.
The portrait – painted by Texas Artist Jess Coleman – is only the second in the Senate to honor an African-American Texan, according to the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.
“I didn’t know I looked that good!” Lee joked shortly after seeing the painting for the first time.
Lee, who on her website describes herself as “just a little old lady in tennis shoes getting in everybody’s business,” was overwhelmed when she saw her portrait unveiled. She smiled big and clapped her hands as she got a standing ovation from senators on the floor. The audience in the senate gallery also rose to their feet.
“I was so happy and so humbled,” Lee said. “I wanted to do a happy dance, but the kids say I’m twerking when I do that.”
The unveiling of her portrait is a testament to her strong will and perseverance.
She always has a lot to say, but she sat and listened as a number of senators thanked and honored her leading up to the portrait unveiling.
Senators shared words and personal stories of how Lee has impacted and inspired them.
“It gets no simpler than saying, ‘receiving your roses while you’re alive, darling,'” a senator said.
And Lee walks the walk — literally. In 2016, she started “Opal’s Walk 2 DC,” in which she walked 2 1/2 miles in cities all across the country to mark the 2 1/2 years it took for word to get to all slaves that they were free. And crowds began joining her.
Nexstar’s NewsNation reported that at age 89, Lee walked from her home in Texas all the way to Washington, D.C., in hopes of gaining support for making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
In 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth just that.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, two months after the Confederacy had surrendered and about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in Southern states.
Lee is still fighting for civil rights. “If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love,” she recited as one of her famous quotes.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested Lee’s portrait be commissioned and displayed. Sen. Royce West was fundamental in making it a reality, saying portraits at the Capitol should reflect all Texans. The Senate voted unanimously to adopt the resolution for Lee’s portrait.
“We need days like this, Ms. Lee,” a senator told her. “We have so much divisiveness in our society. This is a day that heals a lot of wounds and brings us together. And you’re the cause for it.”
Lee’s spirit is strong, and she wants others to stay inspired.
“There’s much to be done,” Lee said with conviction. “Much to be done!”