(Pictured above, Jacksonville Red Caps)
By Bailie Staton
In the near-northwestern part of downtown Jacksonville, a new development was born in the 1930s that offered better housing opportunities for the city’s black residents.
Laid out across six city blocks, the Durkeeville Housing Project was one of the earliest federally funded public housing projects and the second in Florida.
It was part of the larger historic Durkeeville neighborhood that was bounded by Old Kings Road to the south, 20th Street Expressway to the north, I-95 on the east and Edward Waters College on the west.
It was to here that working-class black families could move to make their way up in their world. And it marked a significant change from the shotgun homes and a lack of facilities experienced in many black neighborhoods.
“During that era — it would have been during Jim Crow segregation – it was primarily developed for middle-class … blacks,” said Jacksonville urban planner and historian Ennis Davis.
It quickly became a haven for black families who wanted to escape poor housing conditions in other parts of the city.
A community is born
Durkeeville as a black community actually was founded in the early part of the century as a Jacksonville suburb when black residents were barred from living in other city neighborhoods.
The community was named for Major Joseph H. Durkee who owned much of the property in the area. Here black residents could live in a sheltered community with easy access to the city’s streetcar lines including one owned and operated by blacks.
The neighborhood of Durkee Gardens to the north of what would become the public housing project was originally platted to create housing for the city’s black middle-class.
But in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Jacksonville with support from the Federal government conducted a study on the conditions of black neighborhoods in Jacksonville. The study showed black housing in many areas of the city were greatly lacking.
It was then that the city with financial support of the Public Works Administration decided to build the second low-cost federally funded public housing project in Florida. The first such project had been Liberty Square in Miami that opened only a few months before the Jacksonville project.
In June of 1937, the 215-unit Durkeeville public housing complex opened.
“It was just significant because it was the first time Jacksonville was doing something about the living conditions for blacks at that time,” Davis said.
The complex and the other homes that grew up around it allowed for indoor plumbing, sidewalks, running water, electricity and access to nearby schools.
Housing of all shapes and sizes sprouted in Durkeeville.
“Many of houses were two- story brick homes,” Davis said. Other houses in the Durkeeville neighborhood were primarily frame.
As the country began pulling out of the Depression and people achieved higher standards of living, residents of Durkeeville could now focus on the amenities available to white middle-class families in Jacksonville.
Old Stanton High School, located off Ashley Street, was the first black high school in the state and was the school attended by Durkeeville youngsters.
“Everyone had to go there, they walked there,” said Lloyd Washington, president of the Durkeeville Historical Society. “People came from as far as St. Augustine and used other people’s addresses to get their kids to go to Stanton High School.”
Other schools were created nearby, including Edward Waters, College which started as a high school. Boylan-Havens School for Girls started in LaVilla but had moved to Durkeeville in the early 1900s.
Baseball created community hub
Also here was Barrs Field, now called J.P. Smalls Baseball Park. It was originally built by Amander William Barrs on land owned by Dr. Jay Durkee in 1912 and used over the years by professional baseball teams including the Negro Leagues. Barrs field was reportedly the site of the first Gator Bowl game played in 1915.
The field is primarily remembered as a black ballpark, with baseball teams from the American Negro League battling local favorite, the Jacksonville Red Caps.
However, white teams also used the field. But, in its early years, if a white team was playing, blacks were not allowed to enter the park and watch.
But Barrs Field was not just a ballpark, it was a community hub for events.
There was a Golden Gloves tournament here in 1926. In 1968, it was the site of a tense meeting between H. Rap Brown and then-Florida Gov. Claude Kirk during a civil rights rally.
It was surrounded by Durkeeville’s homes.
“Across the street, there were two-story homes owned by some African-American entrepreneurs,” Washington said, “and if you had 4 cents, you could sit upstairs and watch the games.”
The women of Durkeeville also played a role in sports.
A group of black women called themselves the Ladies of the Links and made their home in Durkeeville which was near the Lincoln Golf and Country Club, the only black country club in Jacksonville during segregation.
The arts also played a huge role in the culture of Durkeeville.
Notables such as Charlie Singleton, who composed over 200 songs and the first black songwriter to retain the rights to his songs, lived here, Washington said. So did Jackie Davis, who pioneered the use of the organ in jazz music, and drummer Billy Moore whose most famous student was Ringo Star.
Hard times ahead
But Durkeeville was hit hard by the demolition of nearby black neighborhoods during the construction of Interstate 95 and the 20th Street Expressway in the 1950s.
The roads – which could allow vehicles to bypass the businesses of Durkeeville – hurt local black-owned companies, bankrupting many.
Integration also hit Durkeeville hard as black residents were no longer restricted to living in segregated neighborhoods and could move elsewhere.
With diminishing economic stability, the neighborhood declined.
Today, however, local residents are trying to reclaim their community block by block.
The Jacksonville Housing authority rebuilt Durkeeville Oaks in 1996. The new complex of single and multi-family housing replaced buildings that were unlivable and offered new places to live, including apartments for seniors.
Washington is actively involved in telling the history of the neighborhood with a museum located at 1293 W. 19th St. and another small museum located within the stadium at J.P. Small Ballpark.
Davis sees such moves as encouraging. He hopes the larger Jacksonville community will step forward to help Durkeeville.
“I see all black communities in the same way. They all have tremendous potential if systematic racism didn’t limit the progression of that potential,” Davis said. “But it can only progress if Jacksonville gets behind it.”