The site where Opal Lee’s original Juneteenth museum once stood in Fort Worth, Texas caught on fire in the early hours of Thursday, January 12. According to a representative of Unity Unlimited, the nonprofit led by Lee’s granddaughter, Dione Sims, all of the buildings on the property were affected.
“I feel like my past is getting away from me,” Lee told local news station WFAA. “There’s been some really good times on that corner. We had exhibits to show all the young people who needed to learn about Juneteenth — they were crude but they were still exhibits.”
Lee opened the small institution almost 20 years ago and earned the name “Grandmother of Juneteenth” when she walked in cities from Texas to Washington, DC, to campaign for Juneteenth’s national recognition. The date commemorates the end of slavery in Texas: On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and delivered news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — two and a half years after Lincoln signed the document.
Lee was 89 years old in 2016 when she embarked on her walking campaign. She was invited to cities across the country, where she led two-and-a-half-mile-long marches (representing the number of years it took for news of freedom to reach enslaved people in Texas). In 2020, the activist and author arrived in the nation’s capital with 1.5 million petition signatures, and in 2021, she stood in the White House as President Joe Biden signed legislation that declared Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Now, a National Juneteenth Museum is being constructed near Lee’s original site, and Dione Sims, the granddaughter of 96-year-old Lee, will serve as its director. According to the Fort Worth Fire Department, all of the artifacts once housed in the museum’s original location had already been moved. One person was treated for smoke inhalation and no other injuries were reported. The cause of fire is under investigation.
“Young people would listen to those of us who were so much older and we could tell them about what we went through in our day and how the times were changing,” Lee said. “But I’m delighted we got everything out that we’ll be using in the new museum.” The new institution will open in 2025.