In 2016, at the age of 89, Opal Lee traveled to Washington, DC from her home in Fort Worth to help make June 16 a holiday, eventually occurring in 2021. And for nearly 20 years, she’s run a modest June 16th museum in a Rosedale Street estate that also served as the 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 commemorating the holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States.
That vision is getting closer to reality as plans progress 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 in time for the Juneteenth holiday in 2024 to open.
The 50,000-square-foot museum, designed by architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, will examine the events surrounding June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger signed General Order No. 1 in Galveston, Texas. 3 the people of the state issued 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 placed under the orders of President Abraham Lincoln.
“The plans are beautiful. It’s off the chain,” Lee said in an interview. “June 16 means freedom for me. We want people to understand the past, we don’t want it to be watered down.”
The museum, which will have a significant educational component, will also help ensure the country doesn’t “let slavery happen again,” added Lee, who was nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. “And it could if we’re complacent.”
Located at the corner of Rosedale Street and Evans Avenue in Fort Worth, the project seeks to revitalize the surrounding area, which fell into disrepair in the 1960s after it was divided by the I-35W freeway. A 2019 study by data company MySidewalk found that the region’s median household income is about $26,000 and that one-third of residents live below the federal poverty line.
The development will include a business incubator promoting Black entrepreneurship, a food hall featuring culturally Black cuisine from local vendors, a flexible event space and a theater.
“It’s a neighborhood like many across the country that has been the victim of displacement and neglect,” said Jarred Howard, an executive at the project’s developer, Sable Brands, a marketing group. “For most of the past 30 years, the neighborhood has been downtrodden and destitute. This development will hasten the resurgence of its economic and cultural health.”
Howard added that the project hopes to anchor “a corridor for bootlegging” and attract other new businesses to the area. The city is already developing a $13.2 million Evans & Rosedale Urban Village of apartments and townhouses just north of the museum site.
“Juneteenth has been part of the fabric of our city for decades,” Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said in a statement in 2021, “and this museum is a welcome addition to its incredible heritage.”
The museum has previously been funded by private donations from individuals, corporations and foundations; it also seeks government support. The goal is to offer free entry guaranteed through fundraising and the revenue-generating aspects of the mixed-use development.
The museum initially forecasts annual attendance of 35,000, with a 10 percent annual increase, Howard said.
The building’s design – in collaboration with local architects KAI, a minority-owned company – will use materials such as heavy timber and draw on local architecture with gabled roofs and protruding porches. “There will be a quality of craftsmanship to it,” said Douglass Alligood, the BIG partner responsible for the project, adding that he hoped the building would provide “spiritual uplift,” along the lines of Lee’s example.
“She wanted to make sure stories were told and she wanted to pay tribute to those whose backs we came across,” Alligood said. “It’s not about them, it’s about our ancestors.”
Alligood said the project had a special resonance for him as a black architect. “This type of project in an African American community that focuses on African American culture is a unique opportunity in my career,” he said. “The historic Southside thrived before the highway went through it and split it in half. I don’t think one building will solve everything or change the story, but this gives me an opportunity to make an impact in ways that could be really meaningful.”
Although Galveston is the place in Texas most associated with Juneteenth, “we hope to focus on the national narrative,” said Dione Sims, Lee’s granddaughter and the museum’s founding executive director.
The museum will tell a broad history of emancipation, highlighting allies like the Quakers who helped lead the people of the North to freedom; white and black abolitionist societies; the southern subway to Mexico; and figures such as Sam Houston, who, as President of the Republic of Texas, banned the illegal importation of slaves into Texas in 1837.
“It’s a holiday for everyone because everyone can find themselves in the June 16 story,” Sims said. “That is the mission and goal of the National Juneteenth Museum.”
Lee traveled 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 news reached Galveston, where black Texans were still enslaved.
In 2020, she started a Change.org petition that garnered more than 1.5 million signatures, which she presented to Congress. She was honored in the White House in 2021 when President Biden signed the bill establishing the new holiday into law.
“You can’t talk too much about the history of the country,” she said. “One cannot talk too much about what is still pervasive in our culture, in our national narrative, affecting so many lives today: systemic racism rooted in slavery. Liberation from slavery or the emancipation of the human spirit is what we will promote.”