In 2016, at age 89, Opal Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. to help make Juneteenth a federal holiday, which it finally did in 2021. And for nearly 20 years, she operated a modest Juneteenth Museum at a property on Rosedale Street, which also served as a filming location for the 2020 film “Miss Juneteenth”.
But Lee, now 95 and known as “Juneteenth’s grandmother” — or more affectionately as “Ms. Opal” — wanted a more permanent institution that would commemorate the holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. United.
That vision is getting closer to reality as plans move forward for the National Juneteenth Museum, a $70 million project that aims to put a shovel in the ground before the end of the year and open in time for the holidays. Juneteenth in 2024.
The 50,000 square foot museum, designed by the architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Groupor BIG, will explore the events surrounding June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, published General Order No. 3, telling the people of the state that – in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation – “all slaves are free”. The 13th Amendment, ratified months later, abolished slavery in the last four border states that had not been under President Abraham Lincoln’s order.
“The projects are beautiful. It’s off the chain,” Lee said in an interview. “Juneteenth means freedom to me. We want people to understand the past, we don’t want it to be watered down.
The museum, which will have a strong educational component, will also help ensure the country does not let slavery “recur”, added Lee, who was appointed for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. “And it could, if we’re complacent.”
The project, at corner of Rosedale Street and Evans Avenue in Fort Worth, is working to revitalize the surrounding area, which declined in the 1960s after being divided by the I-35W freeway. A 2019 study conducted by the data company my sidewalk showed that the area’s median household income was about $26,000 and that one-third of residents lived below the federal poverty level.
The development will include a business incubator to promote black entrepreneurship, a food hall offering culturally black cuisine from local vendors, flexible performance space and a theatre.
“It’s a neighborhood like many others across the country that has suffered from leakage and neglect,” said Jarred Howard, an executive with the project’s developer, Sable Brands, a marketing group. “For most of the past 30 years, the neighborhood has been oppressed and deprived. This development will be catalytic in the resurgence of its economic and cultural health.
Howard added that the project hopes to anchor “a corridor for black commerce”, attracting other new businesses to the area. The city is already developing a $13.2 million project Urban Village of Evans and Rosedale just north of the museum site, with apartments and townhouses.
“For decades, Juneteenth has been part of the fabric of our city,” said the mayor of Fort Worth, Mattie Parkersaid in a statement in 2021, “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 is also seeking government support. The aim is to offer free entry, secured by the fundraising and revenue generating aspects of the mixed-use development.
The museum initially expects an annual attendance of 35,000 with a 10% increase each year, Howard said.
The building’s design – in collaboration with local architects KAI, a minority-owned company – will use materials like heavy wood and draw inspiration from the local architecture of gabled roofs and projecting porches. “It will have a handcrafted quality,” said Douglass Alligood, the BIG partner in charge of the project, adding that he hopes the building will convey a “spiritual uplift” in line with Lee’s example.
“She wanted to make sure the stories were told and she wanted to pay homage to those whose backs we were on,” Alligood said. “It’s not about her, it’s about our ancestors.”
Alligood said the project had special resonance for him as a black architect. “This type of project in an African-American community focused on African-American culture is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my career,” he said. “The historic Southside was booming before the freeway passed and split it in two. I don’t think one building will solve everything or change the story, but it does give me a chance to have input in a way that could be really meaningful.
Although Galveston is the place in Texas most connected to Juneteenth, “the national narrative is where we hope to focus,” said Dione Sims, who is Lee’s granddaughter and founding executive director of the museum.
The museum will tell a broad story of emancipation, highlighting allies like the Quakers, who helped liberate people in the North; white and black abolitionist societies; the Southern Underground Railroad to Mexico; and numbers like Sam Houstonwho, as President of the Republic of Texas in 1837, prohibited the illegal importation of slaves into Texas.
“It’s a holiday for everyone because everyone can relate to Juneteenth history,” Sims said. “This is the mission and purpose of the National Juneteenth Museum.”
Lee walked two and a half miles each 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 is starting a Change.org petition that garnered over 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 party.
“You can’t talk too much about the history of the country,” she said. “You can’t talk too much about what is still pervasive in our culture, in our national narrative, that affects so many lives today: the systemic racism rooted in slavery. Liberation from bondage, or the emancipation of the human spirit, is what we will help elevate.