Ben Frazier: June 23, 1950–June 24, 2023

Words by Shelton Hull

 

The death of Benjamin McVickers Frazier Jr. on Saturday morning, June 24, was initially overshadowed by a private mercenary army marching to the edge of Moscow, and that is to be expected. His second battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma ended after nine months, and it ended just one day after his 73rd birthday, which he spent surrounded by family and friends, the same way he’d lived his whole life as mortality slowly insinuated itself into his life. Ben Frazier approached death with the healthy attitude of a man who, by all rights, should have never lived to even see the 21st century, let alone to help define it. 

 The news was broken on Twitter by Ben Brown of Jax Today, which is part of the WJCT team, and then it led the 11 p.m. news on all channels, where it remained in the “A Block,” well into the following week. As word began to spread through the community in the early hours of Sunday, into bougie brunches and church pews, and across all factions of #jaxpol, a man already established as a living legend had become just a legend, full stop. The words you’re reading right now were written within an hour of the news coming out. Ben Frazier was a friend of ‘Folio” for years, and he might actually be the only person to appear on the cover of both incarnations of this paper. Remarkably, he has no Wikipedia entry, but that’s only because he lived and worked in a city whose value can seemingly be conferred through external validation.

 He was a friend of my family for decades, but I only really got to know him over the last eight years. Once Frazier founded the Northside Coalition on socia media in 2015, the organization was linked with Take ’Em Down Jax on the effort to remove Confederate monuments from the city. Ultimately, the statue in Hemming Park was taken down, and the park was renamed after James Weldon Johnson, and all the schools named after Confederates were also re-named, and the same thing happened countless times all over the country, and Ben Frazier would be recognized on a national and international level for his leadership in helping dislodge so many deeply-rooted, firmly entrenched symbols of white supremacy from this city and this country in such a remarkably rapid amount of time — with virtually no violence. 

But when he was telling me about his plans at a table at the original Breezy back in 2017, none of this had happened yet, and I didn’t know him well enough to fully appreciate the absolute certainty with which he said they could do what hadn’t been done before. The George Floyd stuff sped up the process, as political leaders here and elsewhere had no personal interest in that stuff, so it was an easy concession to make in the broader discussion of systemic racism. Claire Goforth was editor of “Folio” at the time, and she commissioned an article from me about Frazier. The result, “Man of the People,” was published in April 2018, and it will forever stand as the definitive article about a man who was, without question, the definite article, himself.

 

His accomplishments in the activist realm are well-known. Less-known is the courage it took him to even get that far. Frazier was a pioneering Black TV newsman, in an era where every one of them had to be special to even get a taste of serious action. He ran hard, in the era of people like Bernard Shaw, Max Robinson, Michelle Clark, Ed Gordon, Rob Sweeting, Bryant Gumble and the gawd himself, Ed Bradley. Frazier was mentored by Ken Knight, who was Jacksonville’s very first newsman of color, and for whom Ken Knight Drive was named. Both men were the pioneers of what quickly and forever became a hotbed for Black TV news talent here in Northeast Florida, the products of which can be seen on-air in every broadcast on every channel in town, as well as cities around the country, all of whom will now continue to carry forward the legacies of these and countless other pioneers.

 

It’s ironic that it was the flooding of that the Ken Knight Drive area that helped spark so much of the activism that would soon define local politics in 2020 and beyond. Frazier and the Northside Coalition were involved in those efforts, and the matter was personal for their leader, not only because he knew the people who lived there, but because he knew the man that street was named after. So there’s that, and so much else.

 

The movement to remove Confederate monuments from Jacksonville is the core initiative for which Frazier will always be remembered. It was already clear that he risked his life for his principles, but it should now be clear that his life, ultimately, was probably shortened a bit by the energy expended. He had survived a stroke years ago and was already in remission from his first bout with cancer when the pandemic began, raising the danger level for him and millions of other seniors around the country. But the work doesn’t stop — it never stops. He was active in some role in pretty much all the local social protests of the past decade, often on the front lines. 

Frazier got COVID-19 in the summer of 2021, and he beat it. But then the cancer returned, a year later. He was always very transparent about his flaws, his failures and his fears, and while he maintained a positive attitude and joyous spirit throughout, the extended silences and periodic pauses in social media activity made clear, to those who knew his nature, how serious his fight had become. Having gone through so much already, Frazier prioritized family, friendship and fun, even amidst all the heaviness of his life and work. He was an avid fisherman who made time for beaches and boating. His final public photo was taken on a beach somewhere. He looks good. He always looked good, even if he didn’t feel so good. 

His last tweet was a salute to his friend Pat McCullough, who served as campaign manager for Donna Deegan and is now her chief of staff. That was June 18. A week later he was dead, having just missed the chance to attend Deegan’s inauguration, which was the apogee of local progressive politics in this era. He would have been featured prominently in that weekend’s festivities, but his spirit hovered just above the fray, much as he did in life.

 

Tributes poured in from far and wide. He was featured prominently on all the local newscasts; WJXT, in particular, gave him the lead segment on all their newscasts from 11 p.m. Saturday (when they were first to break the news on TV) through 11 p.m. Monday. Jim Piggott, who knew Frazier for decades, was visibly emotional while discussing their most recent encounters. Special tribute was paid by Ed Gordon, the iconic former BET News anchor who worked with Frazier in Detroit, where he reigned from 1980-85. “He was also a proud Black man who knew his value,” wrote Gordon. “Frazier quickly became immensely popular on-air and would soon demand money commensurate with his co-anchors, something that wasn’t done often by Black anchors at the time. Some say management didn’t look kindly on that at the time.

 

Not only did Frazier know his own value, but he helped a lot of folks (myself included) come to recognize their own value, a vital service in a region where Black life, Black issues and Black creativity are so often used merely to enhance and embellish the majority white agenda. On Tuesday, June 27, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate his life in the place where he’d made so much news: James Weldon Johnson Park, which was an entirely different space five years ago — with a different name and a large Confederate statue in the center fountain. I was one of the first handful of people to see the statue come down in the dark of night in summer 2020, the first among many remnants of white supremacy taken down under pressure from Take ’Em Down Jax, another organization that Frazier helped lead.

Formerly known as Hemming Park (and Hemming Plaza), the area might always be best-known for Ax Handle Saturday, a race-riot debacle from 1960, but contemporary observers will know it better for the bipartisan pushback against that legacy. The job that began at Woolworth’s 63 years ago was basically completed by Frazier and his colleagues in 2020. The wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd had wide-ranging consequences for the entire country, but in Jacksonville, those passions were directed into substantive action, and most of their objectives were ultimately achieved. 

In the end, cancer killed Ben Frazier. But it took cancer nine months to do it, on its second try, and cancer needed stress, high blood pressure, COVID-19 and Frazier being dropped on the floor and manhandled multiple times by police to finish the job. And while the job may be finished, the work is far from it, so the Northside Coalition will continue, in his memory.  With his ocean-deep tenor and jazz musician style, his presence was sometimes viewed with skepticism by people who didn’t know him. But, to be fair,  there were few people who ever truly knew him, in the sense of being able to understand what drove him to push himself to the limit so often, and then so far beyond, for the sake of a cause that most of us can only perceive in the abstract. He wanted those monuments gone because he always wanted them gone, for his entire life. He wanted those statues gone the way Shad Khan wants his new stadium. And both men will ultimately get what they want, probably. 

About Shelton Hull

Shelton Hull has been writing for Folio Weekly since 1997, but his resume goes back even further. He has written for almost every newspaper, magazine and zine in Northeast Florida, as well as publications like Orlando Weekly, Narrow GNV, Creative Loafing Tampa, Charleston City Paper, Ink19 and The Atlantic. He currently writes the "Folio Weed" column, which he created in 2018; he remains one of the widest-read and most influential cannabis writers in the world today. He also compiles material for "Weird Wild Stuff" column, and he previously wrote the legendary "Money Jungle" column for Folio Weekly from 1999 to 2009. He is a regular contributor to "First Coast Connect" on WJCT, as well as the Jacksonville Music Experience. He is a co-host of "The Contrast Project" and the "Bold City Civics" podcast. He is also a co-founder of the record label Bold City Music Productions. He can be reached at [email protected].