Stand up for human dignity whenever possible: When protesters take up a “cause” they put themselves in harm’s way not knowing if they will encounter danger. Read about any Peaceful Protesting that dissolved into other than its original purpose. When individuals and/or organizations aided the enslaved these were and still are heroes and sheroes. You do know that slavery still exist?
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Opal Lee.
Opal Lee was born October 7, 1926 in Marshall, Texas. Her mother moved to Fort Worth when she was ten years old. She attended Cooper Street Elementary School and graduated from Historic I.M. Terrell High School in 1943 at the age of 16. She didn’t go straight to college after graduation which was a grave disappointment to her mother, but did eventually get there after getting married, having four children and getting divorced. She earned her Bachelors of Arts degree in 1953 from Wiley College (now Wiley University) and returned to Fort Worth to teach at Amanda McCoy Elementary School for 15 years where she was regarded as one of the best educators in her field. At night she worked at Convair (now Lockheed Martin) to support her children. She later obtained her Master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance from North Texas State University and served as Home/School Counselor for Fort Worth Independent School District until her retirement in 1977.
Retiring gave Mrs. Lee the time and opportunity to become even more involved in the community. She was one of the founding members of Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity (CCHD) which was formed to assist the economically disadvantage in finding housing in Fort Worth. She volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, and served as a member of the board. She now serves on Habitat’s Land Acquisition Board. With Lenora Rolla as its inspiration, Mrs. Lee helped establish the Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Fort Worth Black populace. She served on the Historic & Cultural Landmarks Commission, AIDS Outreach committee, Evans Avenue Business Association, Good Samaritans, and Riverside Neighborhood Advisory Council. She has served as Precinct Chair for District 8 for over 30 years, a member of Grandmother’s Club, and Ethel Ransom Humanitarian & Cultural Club. She is an active member in her church, Baker Chapel AME where she serves as a Missionary, church school teacher, assistant teacher and Deaconess.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I lived the first 9 years in Marshall, TX then we moved to Ft. Worth and things changed. In Marshall, the only Whites we saw were the grocer and his family and the LB Price man who sold wares out of the trunk of his car. We spent summers on our grandparents’ farm in Texarkana, Arkansas hence my love for farming. If we arrived in Ft. Worth on Saturday, my mother was cooking in someone’s kitchen on Sunday. We moved several more times before my parents bought a house in a neighborhood where we weren’t wanted. On the 19th of June 1939 crowds gathered, started tearing up the house, set it on fire. My father came home from work with a gun that police told him “if you bust a cap” we’ll let the mob have you. The newspapers said the police could not control the mob of 500. Our parents bought another home after several more years. I finished I.M. Terrell High, got married, had 4 babies, lost 4 years before going to college that I finished in 3 ½ years because I needed to be home to my mother and my children.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Great Earth by Pearl Buck. The poverty was so stark, a mother leaving a rice field going home having a baby and going back to work the same day. A grain of rice as precious as a whole bowl of rice. I try so hard not to waste food because there are so many people without it. I started a foodbank with others that serves 500 families a day.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” : Perhaps because during the depression of the thirties the Chef of Wiley College took home large pans of leftover food that he would share with his neighbors. All my life I’ve been able to share with others. The Foodbank is one way I’ve been able to share. I still find time to get boxes of food to those who for whatever reason can’t get to the foodbank themselves.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our community interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
Even before COVID, our organization, Unity Unlimited, has worked to build unity and harmony in our community and across the country. I’ve always tried to make sure that human dignity was at the center of what I did because that is what I would want someone to do for me. So I continue to make sure people get the basics like food whenever I can help them and housing if I can be of assistance or know of someone who can. When the pandemic hit, it just seemed that the little we were already doing meant so much more because now the need was even greater for so many more people. People like to be at peace and what we do goes a long way in helping that be a reality for a lot of people
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
There are unsung heroes all over the place. When a neighbor willingly looks after your four children, so you can work and support them, without pay, that’s a hero. When people need food and can’t get it for themselves and you can, that’s a hero. When someone will keep your children while you attend college, that’s a hero or shero. That’s what my mother did. When a family of four takes in a family of four without compensation (and they are not family members) in a house built for two those are heroes. This is what the Talley family did for our family.
When people go out of their way to help another person even to their own hurt financially they are the true heroes that should be honored much like I and 24 others are being honored through the StoryTerrace award. Did you know they surprised me with an honor of being a pandemic hero? Anyway, being a hero takes not worrying about yourself, being willing to do something within your power to do and being a giver. Any father, mother or other who puts family first is a hero.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
- Not worried about themselves: Police men and women are cited often for saving lives when there are automobile accidents etc. Case in point: An officer was present when a car fell off the jack and pinned the mechanic under it . The officer who was in the vicinity for another reason reacted without a second thought lifted the car off the mechanic while another bystander pulled the man to safety. Perhaps it was training or instinct I have no idea but a life was saved.
I tried to go into a burning house to save an infant grandchild, but was hindered by firemen, I was picked up and kept from entering the house. Call it adrenaline or the mother instinct. I lost that child, so not a hero, but I tried to be one.
- Stand up for human dignity whenever possible: When protesters take up a “cause” they put themselves in harm’s way not knowing if they will encounter danger. Read about any Peaceful Protesting that dissolved into other than its original purpose. When individuals and/or organizations aided the enslaved these were and still are heroes and sheroes. You do know that slavery still exist?
- Willing to serve: Any and all persons in the military are heroes. Case in point: All three of my sons were in the military and came home without ceremony, but to me they are all heroes! I believe every family that had or has members in the military knows that they are heroes!
- Givers of their time, money or influence: I know of many people who don’t get all the hoopla and press coverage or just don’t want to be seen that give significantly of their money because it is the greatest thing they have but they don’t want people to know its them doing it. I try to keep their secret but sometimes it’s hard because you are so grateful. Many people help me put on our Juneteenth celebration every year and I so appreciate their support.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
It’s an instinct , perhaps a survival mode, or a trained perception or a push from the Almighty.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
Seeing people standing in line waiting for food at a foodbank one day gave me a reason to join their Board. Through some mismanagement by that chairman, I was made the head of the board when it was destroyed by fire. So that we could continue to take boxes of food to those with infirmities I setup partnerships with other grocers that kept things moving. As chairman of the Board, I found a facility to accommodate the food bank and acquired a 32,000 square foot building valued at 1.3 million dollars and after leasing it for a year, the owners gave that facility to our Board because they said we were doing a good job. I polled people standing in line and 66 of them indicated they would like to work at farming if they were given the opportunity. We concentrated on those who had been previously incarcerated and couldn’t find jobs. After five years of working on the idea, an ask of the Trinity River Authority gave us the use of thirteen acres on the Trinity River where after less than a year we have produce that our farm Manager gives back 50% to food pantries and foodbanks and sells the rest at farmer’s markets on weekends and restaurants. A program is being formulated that will give people in the program certification.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
Mattie Broadous Flake, my mother, Mary McCloud Bethune, Lenora Rolla, Hazel Harvey Peace. Peaceful protesters, Police, Firemen and women, doctors first responders.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
That it will last so long and more lives will be lost that could be saved. That lawlessness will set in and more lives will be lost.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?
Faith in God and mankind. That people are banding together in small ways, feeding families especially the homeless, taking care of the sick, not just family members. After each of these earth shattering experiences, things change for the better. This will not be any different than other epidemics; it will only last longer. Our faith in God sustains us!
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the virus, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing.
Those people — doctors, nurses, caregivers, first responders, and others on the frontlines are giving of themselves untiringly which makes me know that the good in humankind will prevail.
Most disappointing are the looters, those who take advantage of these grave situations, the price gougers and those not willing to do the bear minimum of wearing a mask to protect others when out in public.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
There are several crises going on right now. The racial division ranks right up there with the virus crisis for me. I’ve read about the three countries that chose to subjugate their people — India, Germany, and these United States. Germans implemented some of the subjugation tools used in the United States, and it took about 12 years before that reign was demolished in India, whose system has been around the longest but has made strides. However, these United States still have a long way to go. Read Isabel Wilkerson’s book “CASTE” to see what I mean.
As for the crisis of the pandemic, I think the world is still a very segregated place. Imperialism keeps us from learning from each other. I hear where the impact of the virus was able to be curtailed through strict control for a while and the loss of some privacy and now they are back up and functioning while here we are struggling to keep our businesses open because people don’t want to be told what to do or not do. We are sometimes our own worst enemies.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
Changes in the minds and hearts of people that would let them know that we can all work together when there is not a crisis; to address the disparities that are eating away at the soul of our society.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Make yourself a committee of one, tackle any one of the disparities that exist and get others to join you. There is so much that needs to be done you can’t go wrong by tackling one or more of the things that are dividers. If you start something, be sure to finish it. The world won’t be a better place if you don’t try to make a difference just where you are.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement to make Juneteenth a National Holiday started by Rev Dr. Ronald Myers and NJOF ( National Juneteenth Observance Foundation) see Juneteenth as a Unifier. I am a board member and we helped 43 of the 47 states to have some kind of official Juneteenth state observance. Now there are four states that will officially celebrate Juneteenth as a paid day off for workers.
The enslaved didn’t free themselves. It took all manner of people working together to make that happen. There were Quakers, Lloyd Garrison, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglas, Harriett Tubman, John Brown and others who worked together to free the enslaved. It is our aim to bring people of all persuasions together to address the disparities we face today in our country — the disparities in healthcare, our schools, jobs, climate change, etc. We need others to be aware and join in to make this mission come to fruition as soon as possible.. Juneteenth is not just a festival, It has components that address these challenges.
One million five hundred thousand signatures have been carried to Congress expressing the desire to have Juneteenth a National Holiday so that the expressed purposes of NJOF can be enjoyed by all. We purpose taking another 1.5 million more signatures to Congress in January so please join us by signing the petition at www.juneteenth.us
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah Winfrey! I want to finish what I started years ago getting an audience with her and sharing my views with her. I’ve been in three audiences with her that she acknowledged me and two times when I was able to put material in her hand about Juneteenth and a time in Dallas that I couldn’t get close enough to say “hi” to her. Harpo studio sent me a note saying they had called my house and a child answered the phone. I knew that wasn’t true because I live alone. I dismissed it as a ploy. Years later it dawned on me that perhaps the call went to a neighbor whose phone number was one digit different from mine and who had a child who may have taken that call. I have so much more to talk with her about now.