Waco’s Juneteenth procession stretched half a mile down Elm Avenue on Saturday, as hundreds of people danced, rode horses, cruised in classic cars or threw candy to a hip-hop soundtrack.

The sight was impressive even to Dwayne Banks, who has seen two decades’ worth of parades along Elm Avenue celebrating the end of slavery in Texas.

“There was more to see this year,” said Banks, standing in front of Marilyn’s Gift Gallery, which he owns with his wife, Marilyn Banks. “Usually over the last couple of years it’s been about five minutes long. This is a lot bigger. . . . I’m impressed with what they did this year.”

In fact, he observed that the parade participants appeared to outnumber the crowd, an observation that parade organizers with the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce confirmed. Chamber President and CEO Laveda Brown said parade participation grew from about 300 people last year to more than 400 this year, and she hopes the event will continue to grow in popularity next year.

Ashley Royal, owner of Footprintz Dance Studio, said she hopes a new generation of Waco residents will embrace Juneteenth.

“It needs to be way bigger,” said Royal, whose students paraded with pompoms Saturday. “Next year, it should be bigger than the Fourth of July.”

Royal said the younger generation needs to be educated more about the meaning of Juneteenth.

“A few girls asked me, ‘What is Juneteenth?’ ” she said. “I try to teach them that because of Juneteenth we’re able to have business and have all the things that we have today.”

Juneteenth, which falls on Monday this year, is celebrated these days from Seattle to Atlanta to New York, but its roots are uniquely Texan.

It was on June 19, 1865, a month after the Civil War ended, that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and read aloud the order to free Texas’ 250,000 slaves, including that it meant “absolute equality of personal rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, had taken effect in January 1863.

Black Central Texans have celebrated Juneteenth ever since. Celebrations in the early part of the 20th century drew thousands of people to Taborian Park, which is now part of Baylor University, newspaper accounts from the time show. Former slaves would speak alongside ministers and white city leaders, and everyone would enjoy free barbecue.

Along the parade route, parade watchers described Juneteenth as a tradition for food, music and family reunions.

“We like to eat a little barbecue, have a Big Red and some watermelon,” said Patty Price, who had driven in from Axtell.

Ivory Albert Seaton drove in from Dallas with his fiancée, Jana Mays, a Waco native.

“I come for our family reunion and Juneteenth every year,” Seaton said. “It’s what I do to celebrate black history. It’s a joyful thing for me to celebrate.”

The parade featured new Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson as grand marshal, with Sheriff Parnell McNamara and Councilman Jim Holmes serving as deputy marshals.

This year, the usual picnicking and music celebration at Brazos Park East following the parade didn’t happen, but the NAACP and other social-justice-minded organizations held a small event at Oscar DuConge Park in East Waco. Adults were encouraged to register to vote, while kids ate hot dogs, competed to win books and got to meet Police Chief Ryan Holt and members of the police SWAT team.

Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry said Juneteenth is a reminder of the importance of the right to vote and participate in government.

“It has historical meaning, but it also has a new energy behind it,” Henry said. “People are absolutely engaged now in civic activities in ways they have not been because of the atmosphere in our country. This election taught people that voting, or the lack of voting, has consequences. . . . This generation of young people is not going to accept the notion that voting doesn’t count. They’re realizing that struggle for freedom is never over. We have to continue to fight.”

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