Opal Lee, ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth,’ to receive eighth honorary doctorate for unwavering commitment to civil rights

In 2016, Lee — then 89 — traveled 1,400 miles in a symbolic walk from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to urge Congress and the Obama administration to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Opal Lee will soon hold her eighth honorary doctorate in recognition of her activism legacy and unwavering commitment to civil rights.

According to People magazine, Southern Methodist University will present the 97-year-old “Grandmother of Juneteenth” with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during its May 11 commencement ceremony.

“Having Ms. Lee join us at commencement and share her work through a symposium is a signal honor for our University,” SMU President R. Gerald Turner said in a statement. “Her life’s work is most deserving of this recognition, and our students will be inspired by her.”

Opal Lee grandmother of juneteenth
Opal Lee (left) applauds during a ceremony before raising the first wall of her new home on her family’s repurchased lot in Fort Worth, Texas, last month. (Photo: Amanda McCoy/Star-Telegram via AP)

In 2016, an 89-year-old Lee traveled 1,400 miles in a symbolic walk from her Fort Worth, Texas home to Washington, D.C., to urge Congress and then-President Barack Obama’s administration to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday honoring the end of slavery after the Civil War. She was standing nearby when President Joe Biden formally signed it into law five years later on June 17, 2021.

“I have to say to you, I have only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president — not because I did it, you did it, Democrats and Republicans,” Biden said to her at the time, People reported. “It’s an enormous, enormous honor.”

Lee’s dream of rebuilding her family home that a racist mob destroyed in 1939 finally came true in December when she purchased the lot where the house once stood. After years of trying to repurchase the land, Lee discovered that Trinity Habitat for Humanity had bought it. The organization’s CEO, Gage Yager, informed her that the Fort Worth lot was available, The Washington Post reported, sold it to her for just $10 and offered to build her a house. Last month, she helped raise its first wall.

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According to SMU, Lee will achieve another one of her goals with the planned opening of the $70 million, 50,000-square-foot National Juneteenth Museum on Fort Worth’s South Side, where she has operated her own modest Juneteenth museum. 

The new building will function as a museum, cultural hub and business incubator, in addition to housing a mixed-income residential community. Lee serves as the museum’s honorary chair and, together with her granddaughter, a legacy board member.

Among the notable nods in addition to her seven other doctorates, the Dallas Morning News editorial board named Lee the 2021 Texan of the Year, and she is a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. In 2023, she became the second African-American person, after the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, honored with a portrait in the Texas State Senate chamber, SMU reported.