How do you revive one of the great celebrations of freedom, one that began after the Civil War in the bottomlands of the Navasota River and grew into a massive twentieth century festival—bringing people from all over the country to tiny Mexia, Texas?
In other words, how do you revive Juneteenth at Comanche Crossing? Can it even be done?
We’ll find out over the next few days at Lake Mexia, a small, M-shaped body of water about forty miles east of Waco that is stocked with bass and crappie. It’s a pleasant spot for fishermen and country folks who like peace and quiet. You wouldn’t know it today, but for generations, people gathered at the lake for several days of serious jubilating.
As I wrote in the June 2021 issue of Texas Monthly, the festivities first began there in the late nineteenth century, when formerly enslaved people bought land so they could memorialize emancipation—and celebrate June 19, 1865, the date a Union general marched into Galveston, two hundred miles to the southeast, and announced that all Blacks in Texas were free.
For years, up into the Reagan administration, thousands of people from all over the country would make the annual trip to Lake Mexia to observe Juneteenth. They would camp out for days under the giant oak trees at Booker T. Washington Park (known locally as Comanche Crossing), worship in the tabernacle, dance in the pavilion, hang out with friends, eat barbecue, drink Big Red, and connect with distant cousins they hadn’t seen since the year before. The festivities—run by the Nineteenth of June Organization—would culminate on Juneteenth, when the crowds would listen reverently to a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Some years there would be 20,000 people memorializing Juneteenth at Comanche Crossing. It was like a giant family reunion.
And then came June 19, 1981, when three local Black teenagers—Anthony Freeman, Carl Baker, and Steve Booker—were killed. They had been arrested at the festivities that evening for marijuana possession by three officers from the local sheriff’s office—two white, one Black. The officers nabbed them even though, as numerous folks told me, weed was everywhere that night, and no one had ever been arrested at a Lake Mexia Juneteenth. The officers handcuffed the teens and put them in a small boat—which then capsized forty yards from shore. The result: the teens drowned, while the men survived. The officers claimed the cuffs had been removed before they all got in the boat. Locals did not believe them.
The NAACP, the FBI, and the New York Times all came to tiny Mexia. The officers were charged with criminally negligent homicide and violating the Texas Water Safety Act, and officials were so worried about violence that the trial was moved three times. It was finally held in Dallas, and to little surprise, the officers were acquitted.
The families of the Comanche Three were devastated, and so was Mexia. Juneteenth at Comanche Crossing never recovered. Many locals swore they would never go back, and each year saw smaller and smaller crowds. Juneteenth had become a Texas state holiday in 1980, and many people traveled to other cities where it was being commemorated. The buildings at Comanche Crossing were vandalized and the grounds became overgrown with brush. Crowds dwindled into the hundreds.
In 2015, new leadership in the Nineteenth of June Organization tried to rejuvenate the festival by cleaning up the park. But the board also banned alcohol and increased the law enforcement presence. The new rules did not go over well with locals. “Juneteenth is not worth going out there,” a longtime celebrant told me last year. “It’s not any fun. So many police you can’t enjoy yourself.” Instead, locals observed Juneteenth with family and friends at home, or at neighborhood parties.
Covid preempted the festivities in 2020 for the first time in the then-128-year history of the Nineteenth of June Organization. Last year—the fortieth anniversary of the drownings—people looking to memorialize the three teens couldn’t even get into the park, where barriers were laid across the entrances and signs were posted reading “No Trespassing” and “No Gathering at the Park June 17–20 COVID-19.” Instead, Mexia citizens celebrated Juneteenth by driving their cars and riding horses in the annual Dunbar-Douglass Alumni Reunion parade, which wound through the town’s streets and ended up in the South Belknap area, also known as “the Beat.” There, about two hundred people gathered, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the names and faces of the Comanche Three. “Still Remembering,” read one, “40 Years Later.” Some in the crowd wondered if they would ever again celebrate Juneteenth at Comanche Crossing.
One year on, Juneteenth is back at the lake—and locals are crossing their fingers, hoping for a rebirth. “A lot of people complained we didn’t do anything last year,” said David Echols, a board member of the Nineteenth of June Organization. “Maybe those people will show up this year.”
If they come, they’ll have a lot to do. The festivities begin Thursday in the early evening with a performance by Houston jazz guitarist Joe Carmouche. Friday morning at 8, a parade of cars will leave Mexia and head toward the lake along U.S. 84. Three hours later, the Comanche Three will be honored, with plaques for each attached to the tops of swing sets along the water’s edge. “That’s until we can afford to do something more permanent in the future,” said Sharon Kirven, another board member. Bands will play until midnight (Poppa, Samanthea Hunte, Jeff Aycock), and Saturday there will be domino and card tournaments, volleyball, and more music. Sunday, Juneteenth, will end the way it has since the nineteenth century, with the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Organizers are cautiously optimistic that folks will show up—even though Juneteenth is a national holiday now, and just about every city in Texas hosts a celebration. “I’m not expecting it to be what it used to be in the past,” said Echols, “but I’m hoping this will be a good start. I feel the spirit is better now than in recent years. There’s more interest—people are calling, asking about it, booking rooms.” Mexia motels, he said, are already booked for the weekend. “People are going to Groesbeck and Corsicana to get rooms.”
Kirven agreed that there’s no returning to the old days. “But I’d like to see where people who used to come and socialize will come again. I want to bring back the family atmosphere. In the old days, there were no real rules or regulations of any sort. With the way things are today, there have to be rules and regulations.”
One of those rules: no alcohol, and there are signs in the park saying so. But Echols told me that members of the public are allowed to drink as long as they use plastic cups. “We can’t have people walking with a beer bottle in their hands, like in the old days,” he said.
There will be some private security, and the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department will have a presence. “We don’t want anyone to feel they can’t come and celebrate,” said Kirven. “We want people to know they will be protected.” Echols said the organizers learned a lesson about having too many law enforcement officers. “There won’t be overkill. The sheriff will have officers out there depending on how many people are there. We have to have them, the way things are going in the country today—everybody’s got guns.”
Pamela Baker, 61, grew up in the sixties and seventies going to Juneteenth celebrations at Comanche Crossing, running around with her friends and family, camping under the stars, dancing in the pavilion. Every year, her family members would congregate under a giant oak tree that their ancestors had claimed generations before, and her grandmother would fry dozens of chickens for hundreds of friends, family, and strangers. This all ended in 1981, when her brother Carl was drowned. Baker was inconsolable, and she stopped going to Juneteenth.
Now she’s ready to return. She knows Juneteenth 2022 won’t be like it was in 1972—or 1922. But she’s looking forward to the ceremony honoring her brother and his two friends, and she and her family are going to gather under that same oak and have a cookout. Baker, a great-grandmother, expects to have more than a hundred family members there, some coming from as far as Atlanta. She hasn’t looked forward to a Juneteenth in a long time. “It’s going to be exciting to see how it turns out,” she said. “As far as my family is concerned, we’re just going out there to try and bring it back.”