Medal of Freedom winner Opal Lee receives honorary degree from SMU

Opal Lee, known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth," received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Southern Methodist University on May 11, 2024.

She’s known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” and on May 11, 2024, 97-year-old Opal Lee became a Mustang. Dressed in SMU’s brilliant academic robes, Ms. Lee stood before thousands of SMU graduates and their families to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from University President R. Gerald Turner.

Ms. Lee led a national grassroots walking campaign that resulted in the 2021 establishment of June 19 – the date commemorating the end of U.S. slavery – as a federal holiday. She was in Washington D.C. on May 3, 2024 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden, but back in Texas six days later to appear at an SMU symposium in her honor.

She talked about her family, her motivations and her hopes for the future in a conversation with moderator Candace Lucas-Bledsoe, director of the Action Research Center in Dallas and SMU Cox Executive Education facilitator, and Lee’s granddaughter, Dione Sims, who is founding executive director of the National Juneteenth Museum.

Her description during the symposium of how a white mob burned down her family’s Fort Worth home in 1939 was chilling – but her dominant message was about serving others, and turning hate to love.