On June 3, 2006, the newly renovated J.P. Small Memorial Stadium, in the Durkeeville community of northwest Jacksonville, reopened. The grand reopening was a celebration of sports, history and neighborhood pride. The stadium, known at various times as Barrs Field, Joseph E. Durkee Athletic Field, and the Myrtle Avenue Ball Park, was the first municipal recreation field in the city of Jacksonville.
The Joseph H. Durkee family once owned the property. Joseph Durkee, a former Civil War Union officer, settled in Jacksonville following the war. Durkee became a prominent businessman and politician. In 1911, his son, Dr. Jay Durkee, gave control of the property to Jacksonville businessman and Jacksonville Baseball Association President Amander Barrs. Barrs created the recreational field that became the site used by local teams, including the Jacksonville Tars and the African-American ball team, the Jacksonville Athletics, a team on which James Weldon Johnson played.
In addition, Major League Baseball teams, including the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, along with their star sluggers, played at the field. The city gained control of the property in 1926, renamed it Joseph H. Durkee Athletic Field, and created Jacksonville’s main municipal park on the site. In 1936, after the original stadium was destroyed by fire, the present structure was built with a larger building that afforded space for a separate section to seat African American patrons in the era of segregation.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Negro League greats, including Satchel Paige, played at Durkee Field. Jacksonville’s only Negro League team, the Jacksonville Red Caps, made up of employees of the East Coast Railroad, used the Myrtle Avenue Ball Park as their home field.
In 1953, the field added another layer of history when it became the location of the first games played by the newly integrated Jacksonville Braves (a home team of the Milwaukee Braves) that included 19-year-old Hank Aaron. The team’s manager hired Aaron and two other black players.
The following year, Wolfson Stadium was built and replaced Durkee Field at the municipal ballpark. Through the years, the Myrtle Avenue field provided the city’s African Americans other important uses. Teams from area schools, including Stanton (where J.P. Small served as the main coach and athletic director from 1934 until 1969); Matthew Gilbert High School (where Olympic sprinter and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Bob Hayes played on football and track teams during his youth); and Edward Waters College, practiced and played games in the park.
By the late 1970s, however, the park experienced a major decline. In 1980, Councilwoman Sallye B. Mathis sponsored legislation to renovate the exterior of the stadium and to rename it in honor of the legendary local coach, J.P. Small. After the death of Mrs. Mathis, Councilwoman Denise Lee and Mayor Jake Godbold hosted a rededication ceremony of the newly named J.P. Small Memorial Ball Park.
Following demolition of Wolfson Park, J.P. Small became the last historic park in the city of Jacksonville.