The front windows of Jacksonville’s City Hall are now displaying photos and stories about different parts of the city’s history.
One of those displays celebrates the historically African-American Durkeeville neighborhood and its connection to America’s pastime.
Blown-up photos of black Jacksonville baseball players from the 1940s and 1950s stand behind the glass at City Hall. The field they played on is now called J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, but then it was Durkee Field, said president of the Durkeeville Historical Society Lloyd Washington.
“It was the park where baseball was played for the city of Jacksonville,” Washington said.
The stadium was established in Durkeeville, named for a housing project that was built in the 1930s on the Northside.
Washington looked out over the baseball stadium Thursday. He said he remembers his uncle taking him as a seventh-grader to see a team called the Indianapolis Clowns.
“He brought us here to see the game and I had never seen anything like it before,” Washington said.
In a racially segregated society, the Clowns were an all-black team in what was called the Negro League.
In the stadium’s downstairs, there’s an entire exhibit highlighting Jacksonville baseball players and teams from the mid 1900s, including Jacksonville’s own Negro League team, the Red Caps.
“A group of white owners said that for some reason black players would not play in their league,” Washington said. “It forced a lot of black entrepreneurs to form their own team and their own league and they had some of the most tremendous athletes you ever did want to see.”
He said although the Red Caps were only around Jacksonville for a few years in the late 1930s, they were quite popular.
“Does a constant sellout say anything?,” he said. “Every game that they played here was sold out.”
And some famous players batted at Durkee Field too, like the legendary Hank Aaron, also displayed behind a window at City Hall.
Aaron was playing for the Atlanta Braves when he hit his 715th home run in 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s record.
“Hank Aaron was the major league home run king,” Washington said.
Before that, Washington said, Aaron lived four blocks from Durkee Field in the 1950s and walked to the stadium to play for the minor league Jacksonville Braves.
And Ruth played on Durkee Field too, in 1920, when the Yankees took on the Dodgers in Jacksonville.
But back in those days, the stands were segregated for Major League games.
“If they had a white game per say they would have to sit in that corner,” said Washington, pointing to seats on the end at the stadium. “If one of the negro leagues played they could sit anywhere they wanted.”
Baseball wasn’t the only sport played on Durkee Field, there was also boxing and football.
“Thirteen Florida-Georgia football games were played here,” Washington said.
Today, Edward Waters College and Stanton High School use the field for baseball. It went by Myrtle Avenue Ball Park for a while and was renamed J.P. Small Memorial Stadium in 1980 after a former Stanton High teacher who served as band director, athletic director and coach.
“A lot of people don’t know this place exists,” Washington said. “They don’t know the history of this place and how famous it really is. It played a very important part in the history of this entire city of Jacksonville.”
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Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.