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Madison Alder Amani Latimer Burris at civil rights icon Opal Lee’s side as she gets the keys to her home — 85 years in the making

(L-r) Opal Lee, Madison Alder Amani Latimer Burris and former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin  

The house of Opal Lee, a civil rights icon who is lovingly known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was destroyed on Juneteenth in 1939 by an angry white mob when she was only 12 years old as her family attempted to integrate an all-white neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas. This past Friday, June 14, Madison Alder Amani Latimer Burris was with Lee, her 97-year-old cousin, when she was presented with the keys to her brand-new home on the very same lot her childhood house was burned to the ground 85 years earlier.

“It was very emotional,” Latimer Burris tells Madison365. “It was a really surreal moment. I had asked her: ‘How do you feel about what’s going on?’ And her answer was ‘I know that my parents would be very proud of me.'”

Lee’s family was the first Black family to move into an area now known as the Historic Southside Neighborhood of Fort Worth. On that fateful night in 1939, about 500 white people gathered across the street from Lee’s house before they burned her family home to the ground after taking some of their possessions. Eighty-five years later, Lee’s new house is on that very lot.

“We’re always trying to do our best and move things forward. This was a very difficult circumstance and I think we might be the generation that’s ready to start dealing with all the past and all the things that were like super tragedies,” Latimer Burris says. “She’s helping us to get on that path. It was an exciting moment to see her at her new home. Everybody in the whole crowd was just so excited and were just watching her in this moment.”

Latimer Burris, who has been Lee’s assistant and advisor the last few years, and former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who had known Lee for decades, traveled to Texas to take part in the home restoration celebration this past weekend. Decades ago, Lee came to Madison to walk with Soglin and Latimer Burris’s late mother, Milele Chikasa Anana, as part of Lee’s 1,400-mile walk to D.C. to make Juneteenth a national holiday. 

“It’s amazing and it’s humbling and it’s exciting,” Latimer Burris says. “It gives weight to the seriousness of things that should be accomplished and what we should live up to.”

Opal Lee is well-known for her relentless efforts in establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday that culminated in President Joe Biden passing a bill on June 17, 2021, making Juneteenth the 11th federal holiday that Americans are celebrating today. Lee stood alongside the president during this historic occasion and would later receive the pen in which he used to sign off on the law.

Madison Alder Amani Latimer Burris with civil rights icon Opal Lee
(Photo courtesy of Amani Latimer Burris)

Prior to being elected to the Madison City Council, Latimer Burris was with Lee almost daily for two and a half years working with her, going everywhere she went with her, taking historical photos, and learning the whole history of how Juneteenth came to fruition as a federal holiday.

Latimer Burris estimates she has more than 500 great behind-the-scenes pictures of Lee meeting with different people from all walks of life while being her advising assistant. On top of her historical work on Juneteenth, Lee has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and recently received the Medal of Freedom from President Biden. In 2023, Lee became the second Black person to have her portrait hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas Capitol.

Latimer Burris has scaled down on her work with Lee because of her work on the Madison City Council representing District 12.

“I’ve talked to her pretty intimately about many things including this traumatic event from her childhood. I used to live at her house for a while. I’ve been with her for months at a time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says.

Latimer Burris remembers a really special and inspiring day from two years ago when she and Opal Lee got a chance to spend a day with Valerie Biden Owens, President Joe Biden’s sister, at the Biden Institute, the President’s domestic policy think tank at the University of Delaware. She remembers that Biden Owens wanted to talk about the incident of losing her house to the angry mob with Lee during a fireside chat, but that Lee was reluctant to.

“‘The family never talked about it at the dinner time. This happened, we moved on and that’s it. Never did my parents ever mention it again,'” Latimer Burris remembers Lee telling Biden about that experience later over dinner. “It was at that moment I realized that we’re still all not healed from this. I’m sure that it was really hard to push through this, and there’s mixed feelings about it. And I think she’s kind of figuring it out even at 97 years old: What does it all mean to her? She’s putting it in the perspective of her long and distinguished life. 

“It’s been a fantastic experience for me, too, as I am trying to figure out as a person what this all means,” she adds.

President Joe Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens (left), talks to Opal Lee (right) as her granddaughter, Dione Sims, looks on.
(Photo by Amani Latimer Burris)

The ceremony to welcome Lee into the newly completed home came just days before the nation celebrates Juneteenth, the holiday so very important to Lee.

“They did a press conference, and then she walked into the house for the first time since it’s been done with her toothbrush, which I think is very cute,” Latimer Burris laughs. “This has been years in the making and I remember her saying, ‘All I’m going to bring from my other house to the new house is my toothbrush.’ And that’s what she did. She brought her toothbrush.”

The electricity will officially be turned on for the first time at the new house today – Juneteenth. Several area groups came together to build and furnish the house, which was completed less than three months after the first wall was raised. This historic homecoming event was made possible by the collective efforts and local partnership of HistoryMaker Homes, Texas Capital, and Trinity Habitat for Humanity.

“Habitat for Humanity had bought the land and she was on the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity. She had served them in the past, for years before that,” Latimer Burris says. “And so when she found out they had the land, she contacted them to see if she could buy it back. Obviously, it’s her parents’ land and she wants it back. She had saved up her money to buy it.

Opal Lee (left) and Marcia Fudge, the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, look over plans together for a national Juneteenth Museum
(Photo: Amani Latimer Burris)

“When she called up Habitat for Humanity and asked if she could buy it, they said, ‘No, you can’t, because we’re going to give it to you, and then we’re going to build a house for you on it, we’re going to restore this.’ So that was pretty cool.”

Just a few blocks away from her new home, Opal Lee and her family are planning to break ground on a $70 million National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth’s Historic Southside neighborhood this fall.

“She is an amazing woman. She is 97 years old and not just living on her own, but she is sharp and she doesn’t waste any time. Her schedule is always packed. She is constantly on the move, too,” Latimer Burris says. “For example, that big [home restoration celebration] event happened on Friday, but like four days before, she was just on a four-day tour trip in New Jersey where she’s speaking at schools and she’s meeting with different people that are movers and shakers. Prior to that, she had just gotten back from a 10-day trip to Japan. 

“She’s always said, ‘You know, Imani, the biggest sin is for you to waste time. You should always make yourself a committee of one and find a way to make a difference whether it’s at the local level, the state level, or the national level … or just at your house or in your neighborhood. It’s an obligation to do so.'”