In 2016, at age 89, Opal Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC, to help make Juneteenth a federal holiday, which it eventually became in 2021. And for nearly 20 years, she’s owned a modest Juneteenth Museum in a Rosedale Street building, which also served as the filming location for the 2020 movie ‘Miss Juneteenth’.
But Lee, now 95 and known as “Juneteenth’s grandmother”—or more fondly as “Ms. Opal”—wanted a more permanent institution that would commemorate the holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States.
That vision is getting closer to reality as plans progress for the National Juneteenth Museum, a $70 million project that aims to kick things off before the end of the year and open in time for the Juneteenth holiday. in 2024.
Designed by the architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, the 50,000-square-foot museum will examine the events surrounding June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, General Order No. 3 issued. the nation of the state that – in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation – “all slaves are free”. Ratified months later, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the last four border states not subject to President Abraham Lincoln’s command.
“The plans are wonderful. It’s off the chain,” Lee said in an interview. “Junetienth means freedom to me. We want people to understand the past, we don’t want it to be diluted.”
The museum, which will have an important educational component, will also ensure that the country doesn’t “let slavery happen again,” added Lee, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. “And it could, when we’re complacent.’
The project, on the corner of Rosedale Street and Evans Avenue in Fort Worth, seeks to revive the area, which fell into disrepair in the 1960s after being separated by the I-35W freeway. A 2019 study conducted by the data company MySidewalk found that the area’s median household income was about $26,000 and that one-third of residents live below the federal poverty line.
The development will include a business incubator to promote black entrepreneurship, a dining room featuring culturally black food from local suppliers, a flexible play space and a theater.
“It’s a neighborhood like many others across the country that has suffered flight and neglect,” said Jarred Howard, a director of the project’s developer, Sable Brands, a marketing group. “For most of the last thirty years, the neighborhood has been trampled and destitute. This development will be a catalyst for the revival of its economic and cultural health.”
Howard added that the project hopes to anchor “a black-trade corridor” and attract other new businesses to the area. The city is already developing a $13.2 million Evans & Rosedale Urban Village just north of the museum grounds, with apartments and townhouses.
“Juneteenth has been part of the fabric of our city for decades,” Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said in a 2021 statement, “and this museum is a welcome addition to his incredible legacy.”
The museum has so far been funded by private donations from individuals, corporations and foundations; it also seeks government support. The goal is to provide free access, secured through fundraising and through the revenue-generating aspects of mixed-use development.
The museum initially predicts an annual attendance of 35,000 with an increase of 10 percent per year, Howard said.
The building’s design – in collaboration with local minority-owned and local architects KAI – will use materials such as heavy wood and draw on the vernacular architecture of gabled roofs and projecting porches. “It will have a handmade quality to it,” said Douglass Alligood, the BIG partner in charge of the project, adding that he hoped the building would exude “spiritual upliftment” consistent with Lee’s example.
“She wanted to make sure stories were being told and she wanted to pay tribute to those on whose backs we came,” Alligood said. “It’s not about her, it’s about our ancestors.”
Alligood said the project had a special resonance for him as a black architect. “This kind of project in an African-American community focused on African-American culture is a unique opportunity in my career,” he said. “The Historic Southside flourished before the highway passed through it and split it in two. I don’t think one building will solve everything or change history, but this gives me the chance to have input in a way that can be really significant.”
Although Galveston is the Texas location most associated with Juneteenth, “the national story is one we hope to focus on,” said Dione Sims, Lee’s granddaughter and the museum’s founder.
The museum will tell a broad story of emancipation, focusing on allies such as the Quakers, who helped people to freedom in the north; white and black abolitionist societies; the southern underground railway to Mexico; and such figures as Sam Houston, who banned the illegal importation of slaves into Texas as President of the Republic of Texas in 1837.
“It’s a holiday for everyone because everyone can find themselves in the Juneteenth story,” Sims said. “That is the mission and purpose of the National Juneteenth Museum.”
Lee traveled two and a half miles every day in 2016 to symbolize the two and a half years between the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and June 19, 1865, when that message reached Galveston, where black Texans were still enslaved.
In 2020, she started a Change.org petition that gathered more than 1.5 million signatures, which she presented to Congress. She was honored at the White House in 2021 when President Biden signed the bill designating the new holiday.
“You can’t talk too much about the history of the country,” she said. “You can’t talk too much about what is still ubiquitous in our culture, in our national narrative, which affects so many lives today: systemic racism rooted in slavery. The liberation from slavery, or the emancipation of the human spirit, is what we are going to help elevate.”