With Geraghty as manager and Aaron as the breakout star, the Jacksonville Braves earned the 1953 South Atlantic League Championship. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

The nation recently mourned the loss of Major League Baseball great Hank Aaron. Regarded as on of the greatest baseball players of all time, Aaron hit 755 home runs in his 23 year career, breaking the long-standing MLB record that was held by Babe Ruth. In 1953, at the beginning of his Major League career, a 19-year-old Aaron was promoted to the Jacksonville Braves, the Class-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. Along with

Felix Mantilla, Horace Garner, and two Black ball players in Savannah, Aaron was one of five that would break baseball’s color barrier in the racially notorious South Atlantic League. Often separated from his team because of Jim Crow laws in Jacksonville, Aaron and his Black teammates spent a considerable amount of their time in 1953 in Durkeeville.

Here are four Hammering Hank Aaron sites from that famed 1953 Jacksonville Braves season that still stand in Durkeeville.

1. J.P. Small Park

Long before the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville or Wolfson Park, J.P. Small Memorial Stadium was the home of Jacksonville’s professional baseball community. Amazingly, it’s still standing today. Once called Durkee Field and dating back to 1912, this ballpark once served as the home of the Negro American League’s Jacksonville Red Caps. Some of the first teams to play here include the Jacksonville Tars and the Jacksonville Athletics, a team on which James Weldon Johnson was a member of. Baseball legends who played here over the years include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Hank Aaron. Aaron also lived nearby and met his future wife in Durkeeville during his brief stay in town. While playing for the Jacksonville Braves, along with Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner, the three would break baseball’s color in in the south in 1953.

Acquired by the city in 1932, the stadium was slated for demolition in 1982. However, the surrounding community rallied for its preservation and reuse. Originally renovated in 1985, a small museum was added as a part of a 2006 renovation. A potential tourist attraction in the making, a recent renovation project included an upgrade and expansion of the museum.

2. The Oaks at Durkeeville

The Oaks at Durkeeville development is located between Myrtle Avenue and the S-Line Urban Greenway (former SAL Railroad). The original 215-unit Durkeeville public housing complex opened for occupancy in 1937, as a project built under the Public Works Administration. It was one of the first public housing projects built in the country for African Americans.

It was here that Hank Aaron would spend much of his free time while playing in Jacksonville. Soon after arriving in Jacksonville, Aaron saw a young woman he was immediately infatuated with. Her name was Barbara Lucas and she had recently returned to town from attending Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Since the team’s clubhouse man knew everyone in the neighborhood, Aaron had Marlin introduce him as one of the next great stars of baseball. While she wasn’t impressed, he asked her for a date anyway. She mentioned, he’d have to meet her parents before she would consider dating him. The Lucas family lived in the Durkeeville housing projects. After meeting the Lucas family, Aaron could usually be found on Barbara’s front porch eating her mother’s coconut cake. Teammate Felix Mantilla was usually there as well, having a piece of Mrs. Lucas’s lemon pie.

In 1999, the Durkeeville Housing Projects were redeveloped into The Oaks at Durkeeville, as Florida’s first redevelopment under the HOPE VI program. Now 22 years old, the $40 million development consists of 164 apartments, 28 market-rate single family homes, a 36-unit senior living facility and retail storefronts facing Myrtle Avenue. Shortly after its completion, the development was identified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of the top public housing projects in the country for bringing new businesses to a neighborhood.

3. Manuel Rivera Residence

1145 West 8th Street was completed in 1948 for Manuel Rivera. An Afro-Puerto Rican, Rivera owned Manuel’s Tap Room, Lounge and Grill at 622-26 West Ashley Street in LaVilla. Open 24 hours a day, it was said to be the most exclusive place of its kind in the city for drinking, dining and dancing. Rivera opened his doors to Black Jacksonville Braves (Milwaukee Braves Class-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League) baseball players Hank Aaron, Flex Mantilla, and Horace Garner in 1953, the year they integrated Major League Baseball in the South.

4. U.S. Post Office Carver Station

Completed in 1950, 1815 Myrtle Avenue North was not only occupied by the Walker Vocational & Commercial College, it also was the location of the U.S. Post Office’s Carver Station and is mentioned in the autobiography of Hall of Fame MLB player Hank Aaron. A day or two after Hank Aaron moved into the Manuel Rivera residence in 1953, he was lingering around the ballpark when he noticed a young woman around his age, going into the post office. Her name was Barbara Lucas. They started dating, became engaged after a few months and were married on October 13, 1953, right after the baseball season ended. They were married for 19 years and had five children together: Gary, Lary, Dorinda, Gaile, and Hank Jr.

The Jaxson presents: Durkeeville walking tour

On Saturday, February 27th, join The Jaxson’s Ennis Davis, Bill Delaney and Mike Field for a two hour tour of one of Jacksonville’s most historic neighborhoods: Durkeeville. Durkeeville emerged in the early 20th century as a haven for the city’s Black middle class. Today, it’s a pedestrian scale neighborhood with a portion that was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The tour begins with a visit to JP Small Memorial Park and its baseball museum located at 1701 Myrtle Avenue North. It continues with a walking tour through the Durkee Gardens Historic District before looping back to the stadium. Part of the proceeds go to support the Durkeeville Historical Society (DHS) and attendees can optionally attend the famous DHS fish fry for free. Street parking and parking at JP Small Memorial Park is free. Please wear a facemask and practice social distancing.

Tickets are $30 and can be purchased through Eventbrite here for tours beginning at 10:30 a.m., and 11 a.m. Kids 12 and under are free.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com