FORT WORTH, Texas — Fort Worth civil rights icon Opal Lee didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize, which was announced early Friday morning. But that didn't deter her or the crowd at Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth, where Lee and her supporters watched a livestream of the award ceremony.
The prize ultimately went to activists from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
For a moment after the winners were announced, the room at Paris Coffee Shop went silent. Then came a standing ovation for Lee, who was also celebrating her 96th birthday Friday.
Lee, lovingly known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Congress in honor of her life’s work and dedication toward empowering her community and advocating for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday.
On Friday, she made one thing clear: The work is not done, and she encouraged the community to get involved however they can.
"I want them to understand that just because there's a setback in their life, not to give up," Lee told WFAA's Tashara Parker on Friday morning. "You've got to keep going. And nothing's going to be smooth and easy all the time. You're going to find bumps bumps in the road. You're going to fall. You have to get up and keep moving."
Lee will keep moving on Saturday, in fact. She's hosting a day of service from 8 a.m. to noon at the Community Food Bank of Fort Worth, 3000 Galvez Avenue.
At 11 a.m., the group will walk to Lee's community farm for more volunteer opportunities.
As part of the celebration Friday, WFAA presented Lee with a $1,000 check as a donation from the TEGNA Foundation's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion grant program to the planned Juneteenth museum in Fort Worth.
For decades, Lee has been a leader for civil rights, a fundraiser for local nonprofits and an advocate for raising national awareness for Juneteenth.
From a very young age, following the eye-opening attack of her family’s home in Fort Worth by a mob of white supremacists on June 19, 1939 – Juneteenth -- she had a passion to bridge the gap between communities, striving for equality and equity for Black people.
At the forefront of her mind was Juneteenth, which has long been celebrated in Texas. The holiday commemorates when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865. In the last decade, Lee has been on a path to make it a national holiday.
At age 90, she took a 1,400-mile walk from her Fort Worth home to Washington D.C. to bring attention to her mission. She still holds an annual 2.2-mile walk in honor of the 2.5 years it took for enslaved Texans to learn about their freedom.
In a WFAA documentary special with Lee in June 2022, she reflected on her life, including her familial ties, her mentors, and the moment her dreams came true when she was invited to the White House by President Biden to sign a bill to make Juneteenth an official holiday.
“I still pinch myself to see if it really happened,” Lee said. “And when he signed that bill into law and gave me one of those pens, I tell you that’s when I could’ve done the holy dance.”
In January, U.S. Congressman Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) released the letter that Congress sent to the Nobel Prize committee in support of Lee's nomination. Read the full letter here.
She was one of 343 candidates in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize: 251 individuals and 92 organizations.
Winners of the prize are awarded 10 million Swedish kronor, which is about $900,000 in U.S. dollars.
In the WFAA documentary special, Ms. Opal told us what she planned to do with the money, if she won.
"This lady in Uganda, she's 40 years old. She's had 44 children by the same husband," said Lee. "I plan to take container homes fully equipped to Uganda, about eight of them for she and her 30 children."
Lee has not only made her mark on the world, but here in North Texas, she has made her city proud.
The legacy will continue this fall as Lee’s family plans to break ground on The National Juneteenth Museum at East Rosedale and Evans Avenue in Fort Worth.
The $70 million project is expected to draw thousands to Fort Worth. City Leaders have pledged $15 million as the final investor, which means the other $55 million will need to be secured before getting city money.
Philanthropists, corporations, Fort Worth natives and business investors are all welcome to be part of funding.
The grand opening goal for the National Juneteenth Museum grand opening is in 2025.