Opal Lee, the 96-year-old Texan whose efforts helped make Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the U.S., became on Wednesday only the second Black person whose portrait will hang in the senate chamber of the state Capitol.
Lawmakers gave a lengthy standing ovation for Lee, who two years ago stood next to President Joe Biden as Juneteenth officially became the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. She had organized walks in cities across the U.S. as part of her campaign to have June 19 recognized as a federal holiday.
Lee was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
Her painting will join those of other celebrated Texas figures on the walls of the 135-year-old Capitol, where nearly a dozen Confederate markers remain in and around the building. Lee, who is from Fort Worth and often called the “ grandmother of Juneteenth,” joins the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan as the only two Black Texans to have portraits in the Senate chamber.
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Jordan's portrait was hung in 1973.
“Change somebody’s mind because minds can be changed,” Lee told reporters after the ceremony. “If people have been taught to hate they can be taught to love, and it is up to you to do it.”
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. That was also about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.
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Lee, who began her advocacy to make Juneteenth a holiday at the age of 89, was lauded by senators from both parties who took turns praising her tenacity and legacy. Among them was state Sen. Royce West, a Democrat who is one of two Black senators in the 31-member chamber.
Opponents of Confederate monuments at the state Capitol have fought to remove them for years, and West said there still needs to be a discussion about which portraits were “appropriate” to remain in the state's senate chamber and which should be in a museum's collection.
“You can't hide from the history of this state,” West said.
Rosalind Roland, 62, was among the lively crowd gathered in the upstairs gallery to watch the unveiling. She said her family has organized Juneteenth celebrations for 150 years, but that last year was the first time they celebrated it as an official national holiday, thanks to Lee's work.
“This is probably the biggest Black history moment I am going to ever have,” Roland said.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who leads the senate, told Lee when she visited the Capitol in 2021 that her portrait should be hanging on the walls of the chamber. After the unveiling Wednesday, Lee said she wanted “to do a whole dance” the moment she saw the portrait, which was painted by Texas artist Jess Coleman.
“It was beautiful," she said. "I didn’t know I looked that good.”