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Bud Kennedy: She was 12 when whites burned her house down. At 93, Opal Lee leads a walk for unity

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 6/12/2020 By Bud Kennedy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

At 93, Opal Lee is still making Juneteenth speeches, and she finally explained why.

From the steps of a historic home in the Terrell Heights neighborhood, the retired Fort Worth educator gazed into the distance, summoned her strength and told the story she has kept in her heart since 1939.

“Mama and Daddy bought a house right over there,” she said, pointing to East Annie Street. “It was a nice house.

“The neighbors didn’t want us ... They burned that place down.”

The 500 white rioters forced her family out and set the house afire, along with a 12-year-old girl’s dreams.

“I was scared to death,” she said, retelling the story at a rare public occasion and for a cause close to her heart.

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It was June 19, 1939 — Juneteenth.

The mob had been gathering for three days, throwing rocks at the newcomers’ home.

By the night of Juneteenth, only Lee’s father, railroad worker Otis Flake, remained inside. Police warned him not to shoot anyone, then stood by and watched the attackers invade.

“They tore the house all up, then they set it on fire,” Lee said.

In a life of civic leadership, Lee has rarely talked about the hate crime except to her family and close friends, not even in her meetings with President Barack Obama or in 2017 news coverage of her one-woman “Walk Across America” to Washington promoting a national Juneteenth holiday.

She is never resentful. She is resolute.

“The fact that it happened on the 19th day of June has spurred me to make people understand that Juneteenth is not just a festival,” she said last week.

Juneteenth is a day of joy for all America. It’s the day we gained true liberty, with the arrival of the U.S. Army in Texas to free slaves after Confederate surrender.

“It should be a unifier. ... The slaves didn’t free themselves. It took all kinds of people — Quakers, abolitionists — to get the slaves free,” Lee said.

It still takes all kinds of people.

“We all want the same thing,” she said. “So why can’t we unite and address these disparities that we know exist?”

In 1939, newspapers across America carried wire service reports of the home invasion.

“Fort Worth Crowd of 500 Forces Negro Family to Flee From Home,” was the headline in Shreveport, using the racial term of that era.

The Star-Telegram headlines were muted.

“Violence Flares, Then Is Quelled,” we reported.

According to the report, 10 police units, three highway patrol units and a sheriff’s unit were at the scene “but had not mobilized their forces before the raiders entered the house.”

A police captain warned Lee’s father not to shoot. A lieutenant “attempted to calm the crowd, but could not make himself heard.”

That was how Fort Worth police handled white race mobs, according to historian Richard Selcer, author of “A History of Fort Worth in Black & White: 165 Years of African-American Life.”

(The next year, a home was invaded by a mob about a mile south on East Maddox Street. Similar incidents flared in Riverside in the mid-1950s.)

Selcer wrote in an email: “This was typical police reaction during those years whenever violence broke out against black residents of the city — show up late and do nothing til it’s all over, then shoo away any of the mob still hanging around — later blame the assault/destruction on ‘person or persons unknown’ and rely on black passivity and short white memories to make it all go away.”

Eighty-one years later, Lee has served thousands of Fort Worth children and families as an elementary schoolteacher, school counselor and food pantry leader.

She doesn’t dwell on what happened back then.

“I only tell it when I’m asked,” she said.

On this Juneteenth, instead of the usual celebration and speeches, she will walk more than 2 miles from downtown to Will Rogers Coliseum leading a caravan. (Details at opalswalk2dc.com and juneteenthftw.com.)

Her message is universal.

“This is not a black thing, or a white thing — it’s a racism thing,” she told the crowd gathered for a press preview of the Juneteenth event, coincidentally only hours after a protest standoff in downtown Fort Worth.

“That’s really about ignorance versus knowledge,” she said.

“So I’m calling on you young people. I’m counting on you to make a difference.

“When you go out and vote — when you make the changes — we can keep America from burning.”

Walk with Opal.

———

©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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