Bud Kennedy

For Opal Lee, Juneteenth is more than a license plate

Opal Lee, now 89, at this year’s Juneteenth.
Opal Lee, now 89, at this year’s Juneteenth. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Opal Lee called last week.

She wants everybody to know she’s now 89 — “I’m starting my 90th year!”

And about the new Texas license plate for Juneteenth, the 1865 “independence day” when America’s last slaves were liberated along with the Union Army landing at Galveston.

This year’s 150th anniversary of Juneteenth meant a lot to Lee, and not only because she leads the local celebration.

In 1939, when she was 13-year-old Opal Flake, her family made the news on Juneteenth.

The headlines read:

“Fort Worth Crowd Raids Negro Home”

and:

“Negro Driven Out; Furniture Burned”

Mattie and Otis Flake and their children were in their fourth night in the home at East Annie Street and New York Avenue. The house payment was $165.

“Violence climaxed observance of Negro emancipation late tonight when a crowd estimated at 500 persons stormed the residence of Otis Flake,” The Associated Press reported.

More than 74 years after freedom, the Flakes were not free.

The next day’s headline read, “Police Investigate Mobbing.”

The mob destroyed furniture, broke windows and damaged the building, police said.

One man walking by was struck with a baseball bat.

The next day, youths came in the house, turned on the gas jets and fled.

Nothing further was ever published about the incident or any investigation.

The next year, a family on East Maddox Street, about a mile south, was attacked. (Similar incidents flared in Riverside in the mid-1950s.)

When Opal Lee calls, she doesn’t talk about that at all. She talks about people in need, or club or church projects, or history. Many who know her don’t even know the Flakes’ story.

But when she talks about Juneteenth, it’s about more than a holiday.

“Write about the new license plate,” she pleaded.

“It’s beautiful. It says ‘Celebrate Freedom.’

So here’s that story: The new state specialty license plate goes on sale in December at county tax offices or at txdmv.gov. It’s $30 per year plus registration fee, or $70 with a personalized message.

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, wrote the plate into law with the help of state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it.

For more information, see juneteenthftw.com.

Happy birthday, Opal.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.
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