Opal Lee portrait gifted to National Portrait Gallery by Ed and Sasha Bass, hangs near Oprah’s

dfwnewsa | March 12, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Opal Lee portrait gifted to National Portrait Gallery by Ed and Sasha Bass, hangs near Oprah’s

Opal Lee with artist Sedrick Huckaby and granddaughter Dione Sims. (Maria Recio | Fort Worth Report)
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WASHINGTON — Opal Lee, “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” was excited that she was being honored Saturday in the nation’s capital, where she was to speak about her portrait on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

But the day before the event, she told her granddaughter that she wanted to see President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well.

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“What?” asked Dione Sims, incredulously. Sims, the granddaughter who orchestrated Lee’s walk campaign for national Juneteenth recognition, knew nothing of the kind was planned for this visit. 

Opal Lee stands with her granddaughter, Dione Sims, in the White House press room. (Maria Recio | Fort Worth Report)

But she also knew her indomitable grandmother, 97, was not to be denied. 

“I feel I’m friends with the president and Vice President Kamala,” Lee said in an interview. “I thought I might drop by,” she said. “That’s what we do in Texas,” she added, with a laugh.

As it turned out, both of the nation’s most senior executives were out of town, but Lee still got a VIP invite — Harris’ office scrambled to secure her a private tour of the West Wing and Oval Office. 

She had been to the White House before, notably as the featured guest for the bill signing June 17, 2021. That’s when Juneteenth became a federal holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, the day slaves in Texas learned they had been freed two and a half years earlier.

After this year’s tour, Lee and Sims made their way to the portrait gallery, located across the city in the historic and grandly columned Greek Revival Old Patent Office Building. There, Lee’s story and life, as well as her portrait, were the centerpieces of an afternoon discussion before more than 300 friends, supporters and admirers in the gallery’s auditorium.

The moment was national but also Fort Worth — Opal Lee, artist Sedrick Huckaby, who painted the portrait, and philanthropists Ed and Sasha Bass, who donated the painting, are all from Fort Worth and were there for the celebration. 

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Opal Lee stands with Ed Bass, left, and Sasha Bass, right, in front of her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Maria Recio | Fort Worth Report)

Before the event, Lee talked to the Fort Worth Report about being “on display” in the painting that now hangs as part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, world-famous for its collection of portraits of all U.S. presidents. 

“I’m in awe,” said Lee. “It never occurred to me in 97 years I’ve lived … that I’d have a portrait in the gallery.”

Told that her portrait was now hanging in a hallway just down the corridor and across from a newly installed portrait of media icon Oprah Winfrey, Lee looked pleased and surprised. 

“It’s like I’m next to heaven,” she said.

Lee is also in a place of honor in the Texas State Capitol in Austin. “In the Texas Senate, I’m across from Barbara Jordan,” she said. 

Last year, Lee was honored with a portrait recognizing her work for Juneteenth. She was the second African American, after Jordan, a legendary state senator and U.S. representative, to have a portrait in the Texas Capitol. 

In Austin, Opal Lee’s portrait was unveiled in February as part of Black History Month. In Washington, Lee and her portrait were celebrated as a featured event for Women’s History Month. 

And Lee is certainly history — living history.

In Texas, she launched her campaign for recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday when she was 90 years old, quickly becoming a viral symbol of elderly wisdom and activism.

A distinctive can-do spirit pushed Lee on a series of what she called symbolic 2½-mile walks enroute to Washington to highlight the two and a half years that elapsed before slaves in Texas learned that they had been freed by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lee would walk, often with enthusiastic young people, to places she was invited.

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She had been teaching the lessons of Juneteenth for years. And among the young people who came into her orbit was Huckaby, the artist who captured her in the portrait now displayed in the gallery.

“I’ve been knowing her since I was a child,” said Huckaby, who would go to her home where she would teach neighborhood children about African American history.

Huckaby, a rising star of American art, is self-effacing, emphasizing the recognition belongs to Lee.

“It’s a very important moment because of the nature of the museum,” he said, a reference to the gallery as the nation’s repository of the most significant figures in American history. “Her inclusion speaks of her importance to our national history.”

The painting itself, done with bold strokes in bright colors, captures Lee’s intense gaze as she concentrates on a viewer; a cup of coffee is placed close to the visitor, as if to invite the start of the conversation.

Lee certainly welcomes conversation and is delighted by her portrayal. 

Opal Lee and granddaughter Dione Sims. (Maria Recio | Fort Worth Report)

“Huckaby is such a wonderful artist — I admire his work,” she said. “He gave me bazooms,” she said, later noting, “which I never had.”

Lee’s joie de vivre was very much on display as she spoke of her joy at Congress passing, and President Biden signing the law making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

“I was overjoyed. I could have done a holy dance, only the young people say it looks like twerking,” Lee said. 

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The bill was sponsored in the Senate by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who said in a statement to the Fort Worth Report: “My friend Ms. Opal Lee has been a fierce advocate for the recognition of Juneteenth for many years, and my law to create this new federal holiday wouldn’t have been possible without her support.” 

“After years of hard work and dedication, this is a well-deserved honor,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, has also known Lee for many years. 

“From a young age, Ms. Opal has served as a trailblazer and a crusader for civil rights in North Texas and our nation. The creation of the Juneteenth holiday and the museum in the district I represent would not have been possible without her vision, commitment and advocacy.”

But Lee is not done, as she made clear in her continued work for the National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth. There is more walking promised for the project that has already raised $35 million according to Sims, the museum’s founding executive director. That funding includes gifts from donors in Fort Worth and across Texas, and now Lee wants to get national support for the remaining funds needed for the $70 million project, which is expected to open in 2026. 

“There’s so much to do,” said Lee, talking also of the need to combat hunger, raise education levels and increase awareness of the dangers of climate change.

“Ms. Opal is a wonderful messenger and I’m leaving here inspired,” Ed Bass told the Fort Worth Report after the program.

Even though she’s still going strong, Lee has the satisfaction of having succeeded in her activism.

“Juneteenth really has arrived,” she said. 

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