In 2016, then 89-year-old Opal Lee left Fort Worth, Texas to embark on a 1,400-mile trek — on foot — to Washington, DC. She arrived with 1.5 million signatures petitioning the government to name Juneteenth a federal holiday, and finally, in June 2021, Lee stood in the White House when President Joe Biden turned her vision into a reality.
Lee, now age 95 and known as “the Grandmother of Juneteenth,” is helping to build a national Juneteenth museum in the same city where she started her journey. The 50,000-square-foot building will be constructed on the site of the “Forth Worth Juneteenth Museum” that Lee founded 20 years ago, but while the existing institution explores slavery, emancipation, and Black life in Texas, the new one will shift its focus to a national scale.
The National Juneteenth Museum will open its doors in Fort Worth’s primarily Black Historic Southside neighborhood in 2025. Lee is a founding board member of the project, and her granddaughter, Dione Sims, will be the museum’s founding executive director.
The museum will feature gabled roofs (a dominant characteristic of Historic Southside architecture), a nova star symbolizing a “new chapter for the African Americans looking ahead towards a more just future,” and a five-point star in the central courtyard representing Black people’s freedom both in Texas and across all 50 states.
“Seeing the national museum moving forward is a dream fulfilled,” Lee said in a press release. “I’ve had a little Juneteenth Museum in that very spot for almost 20 years, and to see it become a central place for discussion, collaboration and learning seems to be the providential next step — from my walking campaign to Washington, DC, the petition, and having Juneteenth declared a federal holiday.”
“It’s mind-boggling, but I’m glad to see it all come to pass,” she added.
Juneteenth originated in the Lone Star State: The holiday does not commemorate the day when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but rather when the edict was enforced in Texas — a full two years later — freeing the 250,000 people enslaved there.
One permanent exhibition at the new museum will be dedicated to the “12 freedoms,” a set of basic human rights that Black people gained during the period from 1865 to 1945, including the right to name their own child, to read and write, and to serve in the military. A recording studio will offer visitors the opportunity to share their own stories, to be documented and preserved by the museum as oral histories.
The project, however, encompasses more than museum galleries — outside the exhibition space, the institution will house a food hall, a 250-seat theater, and a business incubator. It will also contain residential units “as part of a mixed-use development that will help revitalize the city’s Historic Southside neighborhood,” according to a press release.
“For decades, Juneteenth has been part of the fabric of our city, and this museum is a welcome addition to its incredible legacy,” said Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker in a statement.
“Our vision and our mission is to help the nation and the world find themselves in the Juneteenth story,” Sims told CBS.
Editor’s note 6/21/22 5:45pm EDT: A previous version of this article included an architectural rendering by Bjarke Ingels Group that mistakenly depicted the Austin skyline instead of the Fort Worth skyline. The article has been updated with the architects’ corrected image.