If you head east out of Waco, past the spot where the Branch Davidian complex used to be, in less than an hour you will find yourself in the little town of Mexia, home to some of the finest peaches you could ever hope to taste and where, 20 years ago this week, on Juneteenth to be precise, three black teenagers–Carl Baker, Steve Booker, and Anthony Freeman–lost their lives in the most senseless, tragic way.

All three had been out at Comanche Crossing, on the shore of Lake Mexia, celebrating the day, June 19th, 1865, when a Union general named Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with the news that America’s last remaining slaves, more than 200,000 in all, were no longer in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued nearly two and a half years earlier. The Civil War had been over for 71 days. But the sweet, resounding word of freedom had not made its way to Texas until Granger brought it.

With race relations continuing to be our country’s most confounding dilemma, with racial profiling seeming to replace affirmative action as the new buzzword, and with efforts to seek reparations for slavery still very much alive, it is more crucial than ever that all Americans become aware of Juneteenth (as it has come to be called), a day that is marked in many cities and towns throughout the country by street fairs and parades, by all manner of dance, food, music, and drink. But in Mexia, where one of the first Juneteenth celebrations in America was ever held, it will forever be marked by the night that these three boys died in the custody of three officers, under circumstances that remain troubling to this day.

They were arrested for possession of marijuana and put into an aluminum fishing boat, to be transported to the other side of the lake, where the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department had a makeshift precinct. They had been handcuffed on shore, but the handcuffs were later removed–precisely when is one of many points still in dispute all these years later. They were not given life jackets (in direct violation of Texas law) and the boat itself did not have lights (another violation). The combined weight of the six individuals far exceeded what the boat could legally carry. Within a few minutes of leaving the shore, the boat began to take on water and capsized. According to all who knew them, Booker and Baker could swim, but Freeman could not. Nonetheless, all three of them drowned, while two of the officers made it safely to shore. The third officer, who also couldn’t swim, clung onto the boat. Less than a year later, after the venue had been moved three times, the officers were acquitted of negligent homicide before an all-white jury in Dallas.

I was in Texas at the time of the incident, working on a CBS documentary about the Texas Legislature. I had never heard of Juneteenth before, but there hasn’t been a Juneteenth since when I haven’t thought back to that night, to the way they died in no more than eight feet of water. I have made two trips to Mexia since then, trying to piece together the mosaic of what happened and why, and people there, both black and white, choose their words carefully–not surprising, really, given that I was asking about something that most of them would rather forget.

On my first trip, in 1990, I went out to Booker T. Washington Park (the formal name for Comanche Crossing) and was dismayed by what I saw: graffiti that informed me the “KKK Was Here” and that “Nigers [sic]” should “Clear Out.” In a place where streets still had names like Nigger Creek Road, it all seemed sadly consistent. The dance hall and the tabernacle had been destroyed by fires a couple of years earlier, fires whose circumstances were as mysterious as the drownings, or perhaps not so mysterious at all.

When I went back in 1998, I not only attended the Juneteenth celebration (which has diminished greatly in attendance since 1981), but had occasion to interview one of the three officers, the only one who would speak with me. David Drummond was an adult probation officer in neighboring Groesbeck and a former state trooper. He said what he had said at the time–that no one had acted maliciously, that it was all a terrible accident and that he had tried to save one of the boys, but the boy kept dragging him under. “Arresting in that situation was probably questionable,” he admitted, “given the potentially hostile environment we were in.” He had tried to put the whole thing behind him. But when his own daughter died in an accident just a couple of years before our meeting, he learned firsthand what it was like to lose a child.

I spent one long evening with Carl Baker’s mother, Evelyn Jean, and I learned what strength was. During a three-year period, from 1979 until 1982, she lost two children and a husband; another of her children is retarded. “If Carl had just gone with me to Waco that day,” she said as we sat in her curtained living room, Carl’s mortarboard from Mexia High School, Class of 1980, still up on the mantle, “he wouldn’t have been out there that night.” Her abiding faith in God and her capacity to forgive notwithstanding, if there was one thing that galled her more than anything else, it was this: In all the years since the drowning, not one of the officers had ever spoken with her personally, had ever extended himself in any way.

One of the two men who recovered the bodies talked to me about something I had never heard of before, or had at least not heard phrased in such a way. In his opinion, the young inexperienced deputy in charge that night, Kenny Elliott, was struggling, as so many young officers do, with “badge weight,” with trying to assert that “I am the law,” trying to make as many arrests as possible in order to prove his machismo and make his mark. That view of Elliott–who left the area shortly afterward but is still in law enforcement, in Brazos County–was seconded by Patrick Simmons, the County Attorney at the time, who recalls that he was viewed as “a wild man” and not well liked by fellow officers. For his part, Simmons remains bothered by the repeated assertion that two of the boys were good swimmers. “There was a bright moon out that night, I do know that. And if you knew where you were, where you were going, it seems you could swim to shore. But if you were scared or disoriented, well, there’s no telling what can happen when panic sets in.”

No hard evidence ever came forward that the handcuffs were on the boys as they drowned. Various “eyewitnesses” offered opinions, but nothing conclusive. “The evidence that is not there is hard to note,” Judge P.K. Reiter, who presided over the court of inquiry, said to me. “Everyone tried to raise somebody else’s hand, but no one raised their own hand.” He then paused before adding, in an apparent effort to inject some good ol’ boy humor, that “a little paranoia is probably good for your health.”

I found his last remark more chilling than humorous. Perhaps in some instances what he said is true, but not in matters of race. Too often we either hear about another case of racial profiling–be it in the affluent enclave of Mercer Island, Washington, or along Interstate 95 in New Jersey–or of some other problem erupting between the police and the black community where, to put it mildly, the police have overreacted. Cincinnati and York, Pennsylvania have replaced Howard Beach and Bensonhurst as the new frames of reference. The specter of James Byrd, Jr. being dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, won’t be replaced by anything, nor should it be.

At the end of my last book, a book that had its deep roots in the Mexia drownings and looked at race in America through the prism of Milwaukee, I found myself concluding with questions. “If daily life is trying enough,” I wrote, “why, frankly, should blacks have to constantly watch their step? Why should they constantly be subjected to a different set of bells and whistles merely because they are black?”

Juneteenth, arguably our true Independence Day, strikes me as being as appropriate a day as any for us–all of us–to reflect on and fully address those questions.

Jonathan Coleman’s most recent book is Long Way to Go: Black and White in America.

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Published at 12:00 am CST