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Tour of Florida historic sites illuminates white supremacy in the legal system

Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Two rented buses recently ferried 27 social justice advocates along U.S. Route 90 in Baker County, Florida, past long, empty miles of sand pine scrub on their way to the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. There, the state’s largest Civil War battle was fought and won in 1864 by Confederate troops who subsequently executed Black Union soldiers who had been captured.

The bus tour, called “All Eyes on Baker County,” took the Florida-based advocates to eight historic sites that bear witness to the centuries-long inequity and injustice inflicted by wealthy white landowners, businessmen, politicians and law enforcers upon the Black people they dominated. The area’s turpentine camps and mines, for example, were rife with extrajudicial killings of Black laborers between the 1880s and 1930s.

The Feb. 3 tour – co-sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Working Families Power, Resist Foundation and Giffords, along with 10 other Florida social justice groups and the office of Tallahassee City Commissioner Jacqueline “Jack” Porter – had a distinct purpose: By learning more about the history and brutality of white supremacy in the Northeast Florida county, the advocates would return to their communities and raise awareness about an ongoing injustice in present-day Baker County.

Six years before the tour date, Gardner Fraser, a descendant of a powerful, local white family and son of a retired local deputy sheriff, shot and killed an unarmed Black man, 31-year-old Dominic “D.J.” Broadus, with whom he had a secret sexual relationship. Though he was sentenced to a year in jail in 2021 after pleading guilty to tampering with evidence, Fraser has not been prosecuted for the killing.

Fraser invoked the state’s Justifiable Use of Force statute, popularly known as the “Stand Your Ground” law, telling sheriffs and the then-state prosecutor that he feared for his life and killed Broadus in self-defense. He claimed that Broadus confronted him by surprise at his home and workplace at the family’s plant nursery business in Macclenny, the county seat.

“This is a blatant display of white supremacy,” said Benjamin Sandlin of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC). “If things were turned around [and the victim were white], it wouldn’t be treated with disregard. People want to think that racism is over, but it’s everywhere.”

Confederate monuments

Group of people stand in front of a monument in a park setting with trees in background.
Dominic Broadus addresses advocates at the monument to fallen Confederate soldiers at Olustee Battlefield State Park. No tribute to Union soldiers exists in the park. (Credit: Joshua Parks)

The advocates who joined the tour represented Black Voters Matter, the JCAC, Moms Demand Action Florida and Amnesty International’s Task Force for Ending Gun Violence, as well as Florida State University students and individual community activists from Macclenny.

They were already steeped in the facts of institutional racism and police brutality, but they were anxious to learn about the practices and events that shaped the Baker County they know today.

At the first stop in the battlefield park, the solemn group gathered before a towering Confederate monument built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1912. The neatly tended cemetery for Confederate soldiers they saw was a stark contrast to the small, weed-strewn burial site for Union troops – including soldiers from three Black regiments – who died fighting there.

According to an account written later by a Union officer, Confederate troops carelessly dumped the bodies of Union soldiers into a shallow grave that was later dug up by hogs. The bones, strewn around by the hogs, were gathered, and a small Union graveyard outside the park boundaries was eventually created. Efforts to add a tribute to Union soldiers inside the park have failed, due in part to opposition from the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The scene resonated with the advocates touring the site, reminding them that the institution of slavery and the mythology of the “Lost Cause” have cast a long shadow over the Deep South – including their own backyard – and that Confederate symbols on public lands today carry the same message they did during Jim Crow.

“Confederate monuments [were erected] during the Jim Crow era in response to former slaves trying to be self-determined in the U.S.,” said B. Neal Jefferson, a Jacksonville middle and high school history teacher and one of four JCAC members to take the tour. “[Broadus’ murder] was mundane in the sense that this happens all the time. We see so many miscarriages of justice.”

The press for change

Portrait of Sharmin Smith
Sharmin Smith, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, in Heritage Park Village. (Credit: Joshua Parks)

Despite the obstacles, the Baker County advocates continue their campaign for justice in the killing of Broadus.

After prosecutors failed to press charges, the family in 2022 filed a civil negligence lawsuit against Fraser and his family’s business, Southern States Nurseries. But in December, a state judge in Baker County dismissed the case, ruling that Fraser “did not act in a negligent manner” because he admitted he killed Broadus “intentionally.”

The family took the news hard. They are urging the current state attorney, Brian Kramer, to reopen the criminal investigation.

Beyond justice for Broadus, the advocates have made it a priority to repeal the Stand Your Ground law, which they view as a license to kill.

“You take a life and only get one year for tampering with evidence?” asked tour participant Tarrez Seabrooks, who goes by the performance name Headache 904. Seabrooks wrote a song titled “Black America” that was inspired by the killing of Broadus.

Fraser served a year for deleting text messages between himself and Broadus. Broadus’ cellphone disappeared from the murder scene and has never been found, though his empty hand appeared as though it had been clutching it.

“That speaks to the privilege of being the son of a cop … that justice is dispatched to those who don’t have that kind of protection,” Seabrooks said. “I’m local and I know the racism in this county. It could have been me, my father, my brother, sister.”

‘Still fighting today’

Dominic Broadus
Dominic Broadus stands in front of the Baker County Detention Center. His son D.J. was fatally shot in 2018, but the killer, Gardner Fraser, has not been prosecuted for the killing. (Credit: Joshua Parks)

To many advocates, the Stand Your Ground law harks to an earlier era when law enforcement turned a blind eye toward crimes against Black people and frequently colluded with white supremacists to maintain the status quo.

Convict leasing and debt peonage – which Florida and other Southern states relied upon through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era – ensured that many Black laborers remained virtually enslaved. When Black people made “trouble” for the powerful, they were shot, lynched or beaten to death, often with only the victim’s clothes and shoes left in the open as an example to others.

“Twelve years after the Civil War, [the federal government] made a deal to remove federal troops from the South, and the KKK came rolling in,” Dominic Broadus, D.J.’s father, told the tour group.

“The [family of] the guy who killed my son was part of the KKK,” he said, referring to Fraser’s great-great-uncle, J.E. Fraser, who headed the 30,000-member northern Florida KKK branch in the 1950s.

That era saw a vast proliferation of Confederate monuments and other types of iconography installed across the Southern landscape, at city halls, county courthouses, schools, parks and elsewhere.

“These symbols are a stark reminder of all that has been built upon the backs of Black folks and at the expense of Black lives then and now,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

As part of its work to counter white supremacy, the SPLC tracks Confederate symbols on public property through its Whose Heritage? project. The organization also supports community efforts to remove them.

“They are, sadly, also reminders to the neo-Confederate hate movement today,” Carroll Rivas said.

Sharmin Smith, a Moms Demand Action volunteer in Jacksonville, said that Confederate monuments “began the public gaslighting, to rewrite history, to rewrite the truth, to tell you what they wanted you to know.”

Fathers grieving sons

Portrait of Marcus Arbery
Marcus Arbery, whose son Ahmaud was murdered by three white men in 2020. (Credit: Joshua Parks)

Marcus Arbery spoke at the monument, too. His 25-year-old son, Ahmaud, was murdered by three white men in 2020 while jogging through the killers’ South Georgia neighborhood. The three were convicted – but only after a video of the killing was discovered. The then-district attorney was charged with hindering the investigation and awaits trial.

After D.J.’s murder, Arbery became close with Dominic Sr.

Both still seek justice for their sons.

“My son was killed because he was a Black man,” Arbery said. “Three men are serving life sentences. It’s so hard for African Americans to get justice. … If you break the law, you have to have accountability.”

Before the group moved on from the monument, Jamil Davis, the Florida state organizing manager for Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter, performed a song he wrote in 2012 called “Stand Your Ground.” The song ends with a long list of the names of Black victims of gun violence. He wrote the song following a rally in Sanford, Florida, after Travyon Martin was killed.

“For me, this case symbolizes the ongoing fight in Florida with institutional racism, mass incarceration and family legacies,” Davis said. “In this state, so many families have legacies like the Frasers, that once their name comes up, you know whatever they did, they are getting off.”

History lessons

Portrait of Gary Arbery
Tour participants included Gary Arbery, Marcus’ brother. (Credit: Joshua Parks)

The bus stopped next at the entrance to the Northeast Florida State Hospital, the state’s first psychiatric asylum, founded in 1959 and still operating. Across the road is the Fraser family’s nursery business, founded in 1933 by Fraser’s great-great-grandfather, and the site where Broadus was killed.

At this stop, the advocates learned that the hospital’s present location was spearheaded by Gardner Fraser’s great-grandfather, Edwin G. Fraser, a state representative and later state senator between the late 1930s and early 1960s. Edwin Fraser and his allies were responsible for the construction of another hospital, named the Ed Fraser Memorial Hospital, four miles down the same road.

Here, the group considered the historic and economic implications of the family business and the hospitals. The advocates agreed that the two sites showed that power can protect the wealthy and powerful from punishment when they break the law.

“More property, more power,” said Gary Arbery, Marcus’ brother, who joined the tour to support his brother. “Politicians come to them. They control everything.”

Other tour stops were outside the Old Baker County Jail and adjacent Old Baker County Courthouse; the Baker County Detention Center, which incarcerates immigrants on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and the current Baker County Courthouse, where Fraser’s trial on evidence tampering took place. Inside the courthouse, a mural of historic Baker County scenes depicts three, white-hooded Klansmen on horseback. The mural was painted in 2001.

The stop at Heritage Park Village seemed to stir advocates the most.

A helter-skelter assemblage of mostly replica buildings created by proud locals rather than preservationists, the park commemorates the county’s historical commercial wealth. That wealth was held in the hands of a few families, including the Knabbs and the Frasers, who intermarried in 1902. A segment of authentic split rail fence was donated by Fraser family members.

Nowhere in the park is a single mention of the Black laborers who lived and died in service to white Baker County. History has been rewritten here.

Brutality and power

The advocates also assembled at the Knabb Turpentine display, where Atticus Fasnakis, a volunteer from Amnesty International’s West Palm Beach office, and Ti Jefferson, a poet, activist and JCAC member, told the story of the Knabb brothers. By the 1920s, state Sen. Thomas Jefferson Knabb and his brother, William, owned about 250,000 acres of forest land yielding riches from timber and turpentine.

At the time, Black children in Baker County were prohibited from attending public school beyond third grade to ensure a steady, undereducated labor pool for white-owned businesses. (Decades later, the county refused to desegregate its public schools and circumvented Brown v. Board of Education by constructing a high school solely for Black children. It took a 1970 court order from the U.S. Department of Justice to force the county to comply.)

In 1923, the U.S. government investigated Sen. Knabb for alleged brutality in the work camps, but he was never charged. In 1936, 400 Black people were still enslaved in one Macclenny turpentine camp – likely owned by William – according to a 1993 report. William was acquitted by a jury of federal violations of peonage laws in 1937.

Jefferson asked the advocates to consider what portions of the Knabb story are left out at the park and what the story teaches us about the role of class and race-based violence in community development.

“Slavery persisted after the Civil War,” said Davis. “People were enslaved, held in bondage. That fed into the system supposed to have been abolished with slavery.”

After Reconstruction, as Southern states enacted a series of laws to segregate society and deny rights to Black people, the Confederate monuments began to rise across the landscape.

“They glorified the Civil War and then became senators and politicians and passed laws that don’t benefit us, like Stand Your Ground laws,” Broadus said.

Broadus family justice representative Bob Schlehuber, the founder of Peacebuilding Connections, planned the tour and has supported the Broadus family’s efforts to seek justice.

At the outset, he drew a straight line from the erection of Confederate monuments to the injustice in the Broadus case.

“We are going to show the truth at these Confederate monuments, show the people of Baker County that we are looking out for them,” Schlehuber said.

Photo at top: The Southern Poverty Law Center co-sponsored a tour for social justice advocates to learn about the history and brutality of white supremacy in Florida's Baker County. Pictured, the group in front of the Old Baker County Courthouse. (Credit: Joshua Parks)