MEXIA, Texas -- Each year on June 19 thousands of blacks gather in a grove of towering oak trees to celebrate the day in 1865 when blacks in Texas first heard -- two years after its signing -- about President Lincoln's abolition of slavery.
But a tragedy involving law officers, two of whom were white, and three blacks youths during this year's celebration has brought the question of the competence of law officers under the spotlight.
The three youths in police custody drowned in the waters of Lake Mexia near the grove during the 'Juneteenth celebration' when the boat in which they were riding forbooking on marijuana possession charges capsized.
Two Limestone County Deputies and a probation officer in the boat swam to safety and the head of a three-day inquiry into the tragedy accused them of acting in 'gross negligence.'
Ironically, the drownings occurred several hundred yards from the grove of trees in Booker T. Washington Park where, according to folklore, the local slaves first got word of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation -- two years after its 1863 signing in Washington. More than 5,000 blacks had gathered in the area for this year's celebration.
Larry Baraka -- a black Dallas attorney given the task of conducting the inquiry into the drownings -- said evidence revealed that the three youths were not handcuffed as some witnesses had testified.
He indicated that incompetence more than racism was responsible for the drownings of the victims -- Steve Booker, 19, Anthony Dwight Freeman, 18, and Carl Baker, 19.
But Baraka suggested negligent homicide charges could be brought against David Drummond, an adult probation officer; Kenny Elliot, a deputy; and Kenneth Archie, a black reserve deputy -- the officers who arrested the youths.
'I think the evidence has shown for sure there's rampant incompetence,' Baraka said.
'I think if those families file suit for wrongful deaths, they'll have no problem winning. There was gross negligence in the part of those officers.'
Horace Jones, a cousin of Baker's, agreed the officers were not adequately prepared to handle the arrest of the three youths.
'You don't put anybody in the water with no safeguard, that's the first thing. Common sense tells a man that,' said Jones, 30.
The 15-foot aluminum boat the three victims and three officers were abroad only had a 600-pound capacity. Freeman and one of the deputies, Archie, both weighed more than 200 pounds.
Freeman, who often was ribbed by his friends for being afraid of water, could not swim.
'He told those officers he couldn't swim,' Jones said. 'There just wasn't any cause for those boys to drown.'
Henry Chambers, pastor of the all-black Alexander Primitive Baptist Church, said reaction from the town's blacks -- who make up one-third of the 7,000 population of the north central Texas community -- had been subdued.
'They (blacks) are bewildered and puzzled, but they are still the same,' Chambers said. 'We've always had good relations here, and for the most part we'll continue to get along.'
Mineola Chambers, 87, who has lived in town for 38 years, said if justice prevailed in the case she thought the community would 'be all right.'
'No sir, we've never had any trouble between the coloreds and the whites,' she said. 'I don't know how people will get over this. But if we can get justice, then things will be all right.'
Don Caldwell, who six months ago concluded an eight-year career as Limestone County district attorney, said law enforcement officials have never received proper training in Limestone County.
'You put a gun on someone's hip and it goes to their head,' he said. 'The evidence in this case doesn't add up. It was a terrible, terrible act of stupidity and somebody is going to have to pay the fiddler. These were three deaths that were uncalled for.
'I hate to see the headlines every day about our town. But it's happened and we'll have to live with it. But let's be honest about it and correct our mistakes.'