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‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ taking back land where childhood home was burned by racist mob in 1939

ABC News

(FORT WORTH, Texas) — Opal Lee was only 12 years old when a racist white mob stormed and set fire to her home on 940 East Annie Street in Fort Worth, Texas. The violence raged on June 19, 1939 — the date now known as “Juneteenth,” the annual holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S.

“The whites didn’t want us in the neighborhood,” Lee told ABC News.

“The police were there and when my dad came from work with a gun, the police told him if he busted a cap that they would let the mob have us,” she added.

Her family had moved from Marshall, Texas, to Fort Forth, where they purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood. And only five days later, a violent white mob destroyed it.

“Those people tore the house asunder. They drove the furniture out and burned it. They did despicable things,” she said.

Lee, who is known as the “grandmother of the movement,” became a lifelong activist for social justice and now, nearly 85 years later, the 97-year-old matriarch found herself back on 940 East Annie, where a large group of people gathered again.

But this time they were all there to celebrate the reclamation of her family’s home with a wall-raising ceremony.

“Today, Oh, it was groundbreaking,” Lee said, after taking part in the wall-raising ceremony organized by Habitat for Humanity.

“I know my mom would be smiling down and my dad, well, he’d think we finally got it done.”

Lee said that she spent years wondering what had happened to her family’s land and, upon inquiring about the lot at 940 East Annie, she learned that Habitat for Humanity, which has worked to revitalize much of her old neighborhood in Fort Worth, owned the land.

“I went to Habitat to buy it and they wouldn’t sell it to me. They gave it to me,” Lee said.

Lee, who had also served on board of Trinity Habitat for Humanity in the past, hoped to buy the land from Habitat. But when she reached out to the organization, Lee said that the CEO Gage Yager told her that he would not only like to give Lee her family’s land back, but that the organization would also work to build Lee and her family a home on the land.

Lee’s granddaughter Renee Toliver told ABC News that since Lee already owns a home, Habitat for Humanity – an organization that builds homes for those without housing – couldn’t use their own funds to build the home, so Lee’s own nonprofit, led by Toliver, took on the mission to fundraise for the project. It didn’t take long before History Maker Homes, a local construction company, and a local branch of Capital Bank donated the funds to make the home a reality.

“I don’t really know how to act except to thank God for all that has happened,” Lee said.

According to Lee, the target date for her to move into her new home is June 19, which would not only mark “Juneteenth,” but also 85 years since her family was violently driven out of their home.

“So far, it seems to be paid for to be able to get in it in June,” she said. “I don’t know how to express my thankfulness in how joyful I am. And I keep telling people at my house, all I’m taking is my toothbrush to go to the new house.”

ABC News’ Tesfaye Negussie and Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.

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