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Opal Lee to Receive Honorary Degree

Civil rights icon Opal Lee will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Southern Methodist University (SMU).

Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” is expected to receive the honor during the university’s May 11 commencement ceremony. She led a national grassroots campaign that resulted in the 2021 establishment of Juneteenth, the June 19 federal holiday.

Opal LeeOpal LeeLee plans to participate in a May 9 symposium at the university with her granddaughter, Dione Sims, founding executive director of the National Juneteenth Museum. Candice Lucas-Bledsoe, director of the Action Research Center in Dallas and SMU Cox Executive Education facilitator, will moderate the discussion.

“Having Ms. Lee join us at commencement and share her work through a symposium is a signal honor for our university,” said SMU President Dr. R. Gerald Turner. “Her life’s work is most deserving of this recognition, and our students will be inspired by her.”

A retired teacher and lifelong activist, Lee was 89 in 2016 when she conducted a symbolic walk from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., as part of a campaign to convince lawmakers to designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery after the Civil War. Juneteenth has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1880s, recognizing the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, two and a half years after it was issued, freeing enslaved Texans.

Another of Lee’s goals will be met with the planned opening of the National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth. The $70 million, 50,000-square-foot museum will be located on Fort Worth’s South Side, where Lee has operated her own modest Juneteenth Museum. In addition to serving as a museum, cultural center and business incubator, the new complex will include a mixed-income residential community. Lee is honorary chair of the museum, and with her granddaughter, a legacy board member of the museum.

Lee’s honorary degree presentation and SMU's commencement ceremony will be available on live stream at

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