LETTER TO THE COMANCHE 3 . . . FORTY YEARS ON

Jonathan Coleman
26 min readJun 18, 2021

The in-depth, compelling story of how — and why — three Black youths drowned in the custody of law enforcement on Juneteenth of 1981 in Mexia, Texas... a story that has haunted the writer for forty years

Anthony Freeman, 18; Carl Baker, 19; Steve Booker, 19

Juneteenth 2021

Dear Carl, Steve, and Anthony,

I have been meaning to write to you for a very long time (as opposed to about you, which I did for the Texas Observer in 2001, and, again, for Slate last year). I became aware of what occurred that Juneteenth night on Lake Mexia in 1981 by happenstance. I was in Austin at the time, a decade older than you, and working on a documentary about the mysterious workings of the Texas Legislature for CBS News. Sitting in my room at a fancy hotel, I heard over the radio that all three of you had, somehow, drowned, in the custody of law enforcement, thirty-five yards from shore, in a fourteen-foot aluminum motorboat that far exceeded the weight it could legally carry. No life vests on board. No lights either. It had, as you’ll recall, rained that night and the water was higher than usual, so much so that there was precious little room between the surface of the water and the top of the boat. Even though there seems to be no argument that you were handcuffed on shore (though who to whom remains unclear), there has never been any consensus as to whether the handcuffs were taken off once you were on the boat, or if, after you drowned, the handcuffs were surreptitiously removed. Two of you were excellent swimmers; no one disputed that. One of you (Carl) had been a lifeguard at the city pool once it had been desegregated after a prolonged battle and you also gave swimming lessons to family members. But Anthony, you not only couldn’t swim, you were “as afraid of the water as a cat,” one of your friends told me, something that everyone else seemed to know as well, as they do in places as small and incestuous as Limestone County. And the officers? Two swam safely to shore and resumed their lives, such as they were, while the third, the Black jailer, Kenneth Archie, clung desperately to the boat because he couldn’t swim either.

What in the world, I remember thinking, and, most crucially, why? A rational question — with perhaps no rational answer — one I have never stopped asking myself in all the years since.

My first instinct was to rent a car and drive to Mexia (which I did not, as it turns out, know how to pronounce, but quickly learned was acceptable one of two ways: Muh — HAY-uh or Muh — HAIR), but my time, frustratingly, was spoken for. I had only been on the job for a month, but I phoned the Dallas bureau and they had already assigned a crew to investigate. The other thing I did not know is what “Juneteenth” was. I had never learned about it in school, but here I was, in Texas, and I quickly found out.

It commemorated the day in 1865, June 19th, when a Union general named Gordon Granger, accompanied on horseback by 2000 soldiers, arrived in Galveston, unfurled General Order №3, and informed America’s last remaining slaves, roughly 250,000 in all, that they were free. Granger and his troops had taken an unbearably long amount of time to get there. It had been 2 1/2 years since the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was worth it, to hear, at last, the sweet sound of freedom, even if many would never forgive the inexcusable wait (especially when some of the reasons for it were later learned, and even if it wasn’t final and formal until it became the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865):

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

Those words, and all those that followed in this most sacred of documents, would be solemnly read aloud at Juneteenth celebrations (in Mexia one year, Ray Rhodes, the NFL player and coach and native son, read it) which often doubled as large family reunions (which you know well). There was so much I was glad to learn about for the first time, and wished I had known about before (some of which I witnessed when I came for Juneteenth in 1998).

There was uninhibited dancing, there was Red Soda, there was barbecue, plenty of it, there was fresh fish and fried fish, there was corn, there were rides and a merry-go-round, there were parades, there were bands, there was a tabernacle for worship (the one in Mexia was burned down a few years after you died, as was the two-story dance hall, and no one, imagine that, was ever apprehended) — a place to gather one’s self and be quiet and reflect on all that had come before, and hope, by planting a post oak tree, for a better future.

People came, days early and from far away, and they camped out, playing dominoes (“bones”) and Double Dutch and horseshoes and football under the moonlight and in the scorching heat of day. Some people dressed to the nines, some as casual-as-you-please. Aunties, who could often be disapproving and hold judgment, about everything, even they found a way to loosen the weave a bit and cut up a rug. Everyone, each year, celebrated what it meant to be free, and each celebrated in his or her own way, and stories and tales were told, both long and tall. And because Mexia’s celebration was one of the first in the state and often the largest, held out at Booker T. Washington Park, also known as Comanche Crossing (the land of course initially belonged to Native Americans), it was one of the town’s claims to both fame and infamy (along with its peaches and its oil boom and its history of sunset laws and racial strife and hanging trees and sheriffs who meted out their own form of justice, not to mention Anna Nicole Smith and Cindy Walker, and that time in the 1930s when Bonnie and Clyde hid out with kinfolk as they were pursued by Frank Hamer and the Texas Rangers).

For all those years, Texas had stubbornly claimed Juneteenth as its own — Texans, as is well known, can be like that, secession never far from their minds — and state Representative Al Edwards, of Houston, had, in 1979, pushed to make Juneteenth a state holiday (which it became a year later, after a lot of political horse-trading). But now, forty years later, there is only state in the country — South Dakota — which does not recognize it as such (which, to be honest, simply gives many white people a day off and doesn’t guarantee that they will observe Juneteenth in any discernible, meaningful way). It is also called Emancipation Day, which also distinguishes it from Independence Day, and just this week, in large response to the murder of George Floyd and the protests of last summer — more later — President Joe Biden signed it into law as a national holiday, a day he called one of “profound weight and profound power.”

In an ideal world, in my humble opinion, there would be one day for all of us to celebrate our freedom as a country. I say that because I have always subscribed to what Fannie Lou Hamer (not Martin Luther King, Jr., to whom it is often attributed) said in the 1960s: Nobody’s free until everybody’s free. I may be hopeful, but I am not naïve, and perhaps that is why the word “ideal” exists — for stubborn hopers like me. Besides, let’s face it: making Juneteenth a national holiday doesn’t require any heavy lifting from anybody, least of all Congress. As Jemele Hill sarcastically wrote: “Can’t get an anti-lynching bill passed, the For the People Act to protect our voting rights or the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. But enjoy this day off!”

But, as Texans, you will appreciate there have been consequences to all this “progress.” In her marvelous book, On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed openly admits to jealousy when other states began to co-opt Juneteenth, almost in the ways, it wouldn’t be mean-spirited or unfair to say, white people gravitated to rap and hip-hop and you name it. After all, everyone wants to be cool. Professor Reed may have moved east and found her way to Harvard — or, more accurately, Harvard found its way to her — but she was a Texan by birth, and a Texan she would remain. Her memories were formed there. Texas was her crucible.

For Logan Coleman,
light of my life,
in the name of all those
whose lights and lives have been extinguished

The three of you, along with my daughter, were foremost in my mind when I wrote the dedication to my book, Long Way to Go: Black and White in America. Of all the things that led me to write it, what happened to the three of you that night — an event of celebration that turned into an unspeakable tragedy — has haunted me ever since. I didn’t have a child of my own at that time, but I was fully aware of every parent’s greatest fear — that your child innocently leaves the house and never returns. Carl and Steve, you were only nineteen, Anthony a year younger — and that is the age you will remain, forever. A cold, incontrovertible, heart-wrenching fact.

Your families and friends, and the world at large, will never know, can only guess, at who you would have become, the contributions you would have made. Why, just the other day, Anthony, Reverend Spivey was recalling how beautifully you played the piano at First Baptist; and Steve, Odist Bryant was saying how you and he were “Playas from the Himalayas” and that you had a way of dancing that was so unique he, still, has never found the right word to describe it, and Rick Washington, now a pastor who wanted me to know he used to be known as “Slick Rick,” was reminiscing about the area near Steve’s grandparents called Black Bottom and how all of you were inseparable, playing every sort of game imaginable, but always knowing your place, where you could be and where you could not, and this was long, long before white people talked about “staying in your lane.” Life in Mexia and Groesbeck could be good, but only if you adhered to, and accepted, the mainly unspoken understanding of the way things were for blacks and whites, of the things that could happen to you if you strayed. In a place like Limestone County, things that were considered taboo at the time of your deaths, things like a young black man — a young man like you, Steve, who was handsome and suave by everyone’s description — taking a fancy to a white girl, and traveling all the way from Dallas to see her, or white girls showing interest and gravitating toward you, activity of that nature could only exist “under the radar” and in private for so long. Loving v. Virginia may have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and been decided in 1967, but similar to General Order №3 — the document that General Granger brought to Galveston in 1865 — word of it took much longer to circulate. Laws, in any case, only ever take us so far. Legislating, let alone changing, attitudes and deep-rooted beliefs is something else altogether. Another cold, incontrovertible, heart-wrenching fact.

On one of my trips to Mexia, Carl, I sat with your mother, Evelyn Jean, for most of a Friday evening in June of 1998. Ironically enough, Juneteenth fell on a Friday that year — as it was the year all of you drowned — and I had gone out to Booker T. Washington Park for the festivities. I had been told that the crowds had dropped off sharply since 1981, that many people simply could not bear to go out there. Another, even bigger, irony, one that has only sharpened in my mind as the years have passed: that the police had acted (to the point I just made) as if they were masters of a plantation and that they still had slaves with whom they could do with what they wanted. They were in hideous violation of what the day was about. No arrest, I would later learn, had ever been made out there during the celebration. None. So why that night, why, as Jews ask at a Seder on the first night of Passover, was that night different from all other nights? And why the three of you? Were you just picked at random from the thousands of people who were there, arrested for possession of marijuana when the smell of it wafted everywhere, and the troubling discovery, later, that it was not found in two of your bodies during the autopsies? (But there were four pieces of gum in yours, Carl. Mrs. Vinella Davis, at Dorsey Keatts Funeral Home, sighed when she told me that youthful detail last week.) And why was the other boy who was with you, Jay Wallace, why was he not arrested as well? At the time he said the police told him to drive Anthony’s yellow Chevy Nova home. He became a different person after that night, left the area as soon as he graduated high school a year later, and went into the military. Does he suffer, I wonder, from a form of survivor’s guilt? It is hard to know for sure, because he refuses to speak about that night — not just with me, but others whom he knows and knows of — when he picks up the phone at his home in Grand Prairie.

Yes, possession of marijuana was a legal offense at the time, and so, technically, the officers were within their rights to arrest you. But as Joe Cannon, the white lawyer who represented David Drummond, the probation officer who was among the three, would recently say to me, “Arresting out there was a stupid thing to do. Operation Dumb Ass. It’s as if you pulled up to a white family’s home on New Year’s Eve and broke in and hauled everyone off.” And James Stafford, the prominent Houston lawyer who represented Kenneth Archie, has maintained from the beginning that the premise was simple: the young officer in charge (Kenny Elliott, characterized in the Texas Observer piece by those who knew him as a “wild man” and someone who, at twenty-three, was trying to impress his superiors and gain “badge weight” and who was not particularly well liked) decided he “wanted to go over there and fuck someone up” — for sport, for the sheer hell of it. I ask, in the piece, the same two questions that I posed in Long Way to Go: “If daily life is trying enough, 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?”

In May of 2021, I sent an email to Kenny Elliott, who recently became a Justice of the Peace in Brazos County after many years of being an investigator in the Sheriff’s Department there. After the drownings, and despite the not guilty verdict in Dallas of criminally negligent homicide coming nearly a year later — it was not only a misdemeanor case, adding insult to injury, but it struggled to find a home and a jury, a hot potato so to speak, thanks but, ah, no thanks — Elliott was told by Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Walker that he would have to go elsewhere, that he was doing him a favor. He had grown up in Bell County, riding bulls and in rodeos, and his uncle, Bill Fletcher, was Walker’s chief deputy (one of the main reasons he got the job), an officer considered so untruthful that hardly any lawyers ever wanted to put him on the stand. It didn’t matter. Next thing Elliott knew, the sheriff of Brazos, at Walker’s urging, offered him a job. It was a second chance (though Elliott was probably too arrogant to see it that way), and so he took his reckless machismo and headed to Bryan and College Station.

Dear Judge Elliott —

Greetings….

The 40th anniversary of the Juneteenth drownings is coming up next month, and I can’t imagine that you don’t think back to that night and wonder how there might have been a different outcome. I asked in an email to you last June what, if you could do it over again, you might have done differently? Of all the hundreds upon hundreds of people there that night, how is that you zeroed in on those three boys, and decided not to arrest the fourth boy, Jay Wallace? Why did you feel the need to arrest at all? As Joe Cannon said to me, a Juneteenth celebration in Mexia, which happened to have the largest crowd ever that year, is the equivalent of a white person’s celebration on New Year’s Eve. It is my understanding, from many, many people, that Steven Booker was dating a white girl, and that people were not happy about it. That, apparently, he had been warned earlier that day in Groesbeck to go home to Dallas. Did you ever confide in Bill Fletcher, your uncle, about what happened that night? Why did you feel the need to leave Limestone County so quickly after the trial in Dallas? I understand that Sheriff Walker, whom I have spoken with at length, had felt that that was probably the best thing for you, and helped arrange the job in Brazos County for you, but what did you feel about it all?

I look forward to hearing from you.

All best,
Jonathan Coleman

I phoned his office multiple times. His assistant confirmed receipt of the email, and said she told him each time I called. When he ran for JP, a few people phoned the Eagle, the local paper, and asked if the editors were aware of what had happened years before. They were not, and decided not to bring it up during the campaign. A lawyer in Bryan, Roy Brantley, had grown up with Elliott and had also ridden bulls with him, but they were two years apart in age, and Brantley claimed he was busy with his studies at Texas A&M and never knew about any of this when I brought it up with him, and said he was surprised that he hadn’t.

Kenneth Archie (whom Judy Chambers — a cousin of yours, Carl — considered an “inmate with privileges”) initially said that two of you were handcuffed together on shore but would not say if that was also true on the boat, but then pled the Fifth and wouldn’t testify at the Court of Inquiry (yet another proceeding unique to Texas — as well as to the military). The judge who called for the proceeding and presided over it, Judge Putnam Kaye “P.K.” Reiter, later said to me, “It was the damnedest thing. Everyone tried to raise somebody else’s hand, but no one raised their own hand. In my experience, Mr. Coleman, the evidence that is not there is often hard to note.” After a long pause, he said, trying to inject a little levity, “A little paranoia is probably good for your health.” (I appreciate levity as much as the next person, but not in regards to this, especially since the Ku Klux Klan, Mrs. Davis assures me, is still in the area and still having meetings. “We could walk to one right now if you want,” she said. “I’m seventy-nine and I am not afraid of anyone, and that includes the Devil.” It reminded me of what the toughest boss I ever had once said: “Even paranoids have enemies.”)

I have never been able to speak to Archie. I reached him by phone once, and he, a man of few words to begin with, said, quietly, that he had nothing to say. As it happens, Carl, he worked in security at the Mexia State School (the Texas-supported living center where one of your siblings still is and which had been a POW camp during World War II) for a number of years — at the same time as your sister Patricia, who works there as well. “He would never look at me,” she said. “Not once. He would just walk past.” He has also never strayed far from the area. This past winter, during a particularly bad stretch of weather when people were freezing all over Texas, he got his truck into an accident, and everyone seemed to know about it, as they do most things in Limestone County — though not all.

On the same trip to Mexia in 1998 when I saw your mother, Carl, whom I will return to in a second, I was able to spend a good bit of time with David Drummond, the probation officer. I was surprised, at first, that he agreed to see me, but then I got a better idea as to why he did. He had lost his daughter five years earlier, and so he now knew firsthand what it was like to lose a child. He appeared to have great regret over what happened that night, and like many people I have spoken with, he carried his own form of guilt. We ate a few meals together at the Drilling Rig and spent time in my room next to it at the Inn of Mexia. We even watched Michael Jordan’s last game as a Chicago Bull — I wish the three of you could have seen him play — when he sank a shot at the end and they won their sixth championship. Drummond, who was thirty-two at the time (nine years older than Elliott and Archie), did testify at the Court of Inquiry, the only one of the officers to do so. He maintained to me that it was all “a terrible accident” and admitted (though not at the time) that “arresting in that situation was probably questionable, given the potentially hostile environment we were in.” I remember grimacing when he used the word “hostile,” because, to me, he was projecting, trying to rationalize things for his own peace of mind. He had, he insisted, tried to save “the Freeman boy, but the boy kept dragging me under.” I remember feeling, at that moment, less like a curious writer and more like a priest, some sort of Father Confessor, that Drummond wanted me to confer something on him — understanding, sympathy, empathy, forgiveness — that I under most circumstances possess, but was not my place, or desire, to grant. I could tell he was tormented — he had, after all, lived with this for seventeen years at that point — but I sensed he knew more. He had to have known more. When I tried to reach him in June of 2020, shortly after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis (a Houston native who was killed in broad daylight by an officer who kept his foot on his neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, and whose death sparked a summer of protests all around the world, including know-your-place, go-along-get-along Limestone County), he didn’t return my call. When I tried him this year — nine times — same thing. Over the years, Judy Chambers would run into him and he would never look at her. Joe Cannon brought thirty-four character witnesses to Dallas on his behalf. The lawyers for Elliott and Archie brought none. Has David Drummond ever forgiven himself for his role that night? That I don’t know. Last I heard, he was living in Waco, alone.

Speaking of Waco, Carl, in your mother’s living room that evening, the shades drawn to keep out the unrelenting Texas heat, your diploma, Mexia High School, Class of 1980, and your mortarboard on the mantel right above where I was sitting, she was lamenting that “if only Carl had gone to Waco with me that day, he wouldn’t have been out there that night.” In telling me that in addition to you,, she had lost another child and her husband, all within a three-year period, and that another of her children was institutionalized, I got a sobering education in what strength was. She had an abiding faith in God — I knew that from attending Antioch Baptist with her and her good friend Ada Conner — but her capacity to forgive was severely strained by something that had never set well with her, that, frankly, galled her, something she could never, and would never, understand: in all the years that had passed, in a place small enough where people recognized each other even if they didn’t have anything to do with each other, not one of the officers had ever spoken with her personally, had ever extended himself in any way.

Is that guilt, or embarrassment, or a simple unwillingness to be uncomfortable and to be gracious and say that you are genuinely sorry? I honestly can’t say. We are all contradictions.

Even though it is often said that the feeling of lingering guilt is pointless, that it doesn’t get you anywhere, that it only makes you miserable, it was powerfully present among so many people I spoke with. Odist Bryant feels guilty, Steve, that you and he had lost touch after he came by your home in Dallas on New Year’s Eve of 1980, was shocked to find you had already turned in for the evening, and dragged your ass off to one of those high-end Dallas Cowboys clubs you both liked to frequent, those clubs, he openly admitted, where young women moved in your and his direction much more often than you moved in theirs. Only reason he can figure is that he moved back to Wortham shortly after that, but that it had nothing to do with anything else. He made it very clear to me that you and he were like brothers and that he has never gotten over your death. And he (like your mother, Carl) feels certain that had you been with him that day this never would have happened. In fact, he had decided to drive over from Wortham and surprise you out at Booker T, but he was too late. Ada Conner’s son, Warren, still shakes his head when he replays all of it in his mind. His group was scheduled to play that night, and he remembers walking with all of you for a while, when suddenly someone came running up and reminded him that he better get his ass moving because they were supposed to start in fifteen minutes. “We played for an hour and a half,” Warren told me. “By the time we were finished, those boys were dead.” The Conners owned a little place out on the lake, and he also recalls his grandmother telling him that the officers brought all of you past their place on the way to the boat. When she asked what in the hell was going on, she was told to “Get back, and mind your own business.”

There is a poem I have always loved, by the British poet W.H. Auden, and when I think back to that night, I think of “Musee des Beaux Arts.” The notion that you are unable to protect a loved one at all times seems obvious enough and universal, and yet it doesn’t stop us from staying awake at all hours, wondering and worrying how it all could be otherwise.

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course. I think about that line and wonder if “martyrdom” is even the right word. On some level, I suppose it is, but I think more about the utterly careless and inhumane way you were treated. Perhaps because I am Jewish, the Holocaust is never far from my mind. Long after you died, the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER” became both a rallying cry and the name of a movement in 2013. It was in response to the killing of a young man named Trayvon Martin and the not guilty verdict rendered in his murderer’s trial, and it has continued in so many senseless Black deaths since at the hands of the police, each one deserving of their own special scrutiny. There are many whites, of course, who are quick to point out that all lives matter, which of course they do, but it is patronizing and so far beside the point.

In any case, what happened to you mattered enough to draw the attention of politicians and the New York Times and media everywhere, including overseas. A Black historian from the University of Texas, John L. Warfield, wrote to the Texas Attorney General, Mark White, seeking assurances that “a full-scale investigation” take place, and White responded that “I will do everything within jurisdiction of my office to see that this matter is resolved with truth and justice.” Had there been Internet and social media, it all would have been amplified even further. At the same time — and I never stop thinking about this — had there been cell phones, and if the police had been wearing body cameras (which is unlikely even if they had existed), so much of what is still being debated and argued about today in terms of handcuffs would in almost all likelihood be resolved. But it was 1981.

Your bodies were found separately — Carl, in the early morning hours of Saturday, Anthony a few hours later, and then, just as Sheriff Walker was about to call off the search on Sunday morning, suggesting that Steve probably made it to land and fled, he floated to the surface around 9:45 while many people were in church. The search party was handled by the Mexia Fire Department, under the supervision of Aaron Thompson, and there was always more than one boat, which made it virtually impossible, even with binoculars, for anyone to have a clear, unimpeded view of what was unfolding, and of course so much of it was being done under cover of night. It didn’t prevent people like Arthur Beachum, Jr. from saying, initially, that he had seen something glittering but also admitting he had been drinking, and others from saying much the same, but in the ensuing months, many who wanted to testify wound up not doing so, citing threats to their business or evil-eye intimidation and late-night calls and hang-ups to where it reached the point that the lawyers who were prosecuting the case didn’t feel they could put anyone on the stand with any credibility, with any testimony that would stand up. Even today, all these years later, both in person and by phone, many people have been reluctant to speak with me, even if I promised them anonymity. Fear of repercussions is the phrase I would hear most often. “Never forget,” Mrs. Davis told me, “that white folk know where you bank and where you shop and who holds your mortgage.” When I point out to her that her son is the Black mayor of Mexia, she snapped, “He is, and I am proud of him, but I know Mexia, I know Groesbeck, I know Limestone County. Listen good to what I am telling you.”

In the course of one week after you died, television trucks had rolled into town and questions were being asked and Sheriff Walker was fielding phone calls from places all over the country he had neither visited nor knew anyone. Someone from the Department of Justice had come to Limestone from Washington and so did someone from the FBI’s Dallas office. Judge Reiter asked the NAACP to suggest a Black lawyer to serve as a Special Prosecutor, and Larry Baraka arrived from Dallas and met with your families. The pathologist from Waco, Kenneth P. Wittstruck, who did the autopsies of Carl and Anthony, did not conclude that there was potentially incriminating evidence of what Sheriff Walker prefers to call “restraints.” Richard Dockery, the NAACP head out of Dallas, examined Carl’s body at Dorsey Keatts and was convinced that the position of your wrists and fingers indicated otherwise. Steve, your mother was not about to take the word of a white pathologist and had your body sent to Dallas, where you had moved in 1979 to complete high school. As it happens, Mrs. Davis’s son from her first marriage, who was a mortician, examined Steve’s body at Singing Hills Funeral Home and told her, “Mama, that boy was handcuffed. I could tell from the way the rigor mortis had set in among his bones.”

While forensics in general have advanced a lot in forty years, it is unlikely that anyone would exhume your bodies now. It would require all of your families to agree to this, and that would mean reliving the horror of what happened, and it’s not as if it would bring any of you back. And yet, this vexing question has stubbornly hung over Mexia and Limestone County for all this time.

The other looming question is this, and it involves Steve. As mentioned at points throughout this narrative — and this comes from more than a handful of people I have spoken with — Steve was apparently dating a white girl in Groesbeck (and possibly another white girl in Mexia, whose father was a city official). The girl in Groesbeck was rumored to be kin to Sheriff Walker, and very possibly the daughter of his brother Chuck, who just happened to be the police chief of Groesbeck. (In another wrinkle, Chuck Walker had apparently had a child out of wedlock with a Black woman named Mary Smith — a fairly “open secret,” according to Mrs. Vinella Davis — a child named Keisha Smith who was so good at basketball that she won a four-year scholarship to college. As mentioned earlier, at that time, and for the longest time, the road in interracial relationships only ran one way; if you were a white male, you could essentially do what you want — a form of “white privilege” that no one ever wants to talk about, even now, when whites are, slowly, being honest, and fully understanding of — and coming to terms with — all the privileges that come to you just by dint of being white.)

But could this have gotten all three of you killed? Could this change the whole fraught and painful story from one of carelessness and thoughtlessness and stupidity — from one of criminal neglect where all three officers went free — to one that has echoes of Emmett Till in August of 1955, a teenager who wound up lynched because of acting “too familiar” with a young white woman of twenty-one in her family’s grocery store in Money, Mississippi.

In asking this, my mind raced back to the first time I came to Limestone County. It was the spring of 1990, nearly nine years after the drownings. I went out to Comanche Crossing to have a look around, and I was appalled to see grafitti that informed me the “KKK was here” and that “Nigers[sic]” should “Clear Out.” I also couldn’t help noticing “Nigger Creek Road.” Eight years later, when I returned, all of it was still there, even though, in theory, there was a national movement afoot to begin scrubbing things like this from maps — a form of sanitizing that is its form of legislating, and doesn’t eliminate the problem, not really. Five days before I arrived in June of 1998, a man named James Byrd, Jr. was chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck, dragged three miles to his death by three white supremacists on an asphalt country road in Jasper, Texas, a mere 185 miles from there. One of the three was eventually executed — which, you could say, was another way of viewing “progress.”

So in trying to answer this question, I consider all of those things. I also consider the fact that less than a month after you drowned, in Skidmore, Missouri, a town of less than a thousand people, Ken Rex McElroy was shot in a truck outside a tavern on Main Street, in broad daylight. McElroy was considered the Town Bully. “60 Minutes” did a compelling piece. And yet all these years later, despite overwhelming agreement that everyone in Skidmore knew who killed McElroy, no one stood up, no one, echoing Judge Reiter, has to this day ever raised their hand.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote in “The White Album.” But at what cost, I wonder, at what searing cost? The pandemic which wreaked havoc in America and around the world supposedly has made people more reflective, more inclined to alter how they live their lives. If so, Judge Elliott, there is still time for you, time to help put a lot of people’s minds at rest — including your own.

All best,

Jonathan (Coleman)

JONATHAN COLEMAN is the author of five critically acclaimed works of narrative nonfiction — three of which were New York Times bestsellers — including Long Way to Go: Black and White in America. He first wrote about the Juneteenth drownings in the Texas Observer in 2001, and again last year in Slate. This piece is drawn from extensive new reporting.

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