15/7/1897 - 11/3/1979
Pioneering African American racing driver, An outstanding mechanic and driver, his skills were worthy of inclusion in the Indy 500 but he lived at a time when racial barriers prevented him from doing so. Charlie Wiggins died 43 years ago, he was 82
Charlie Wiggins came from a poor background in Evansville, Indiana. His father was a coalminer and his mother died when Charlie was still young. He grew up in a segregated town, under the heel of the Jim Crow laws that mandated de jure segregation in all public facilities. The KKK had come to power in Indiana and in 1924 would win every elected office at the state level. D.C. Stephenson, the head and organizing force of the Klan, was an Evansville resident. In fact it was said that the attitudes of southern Indiana were more racist than areas in the Deep South.
Wiggins worked at a shoe shine stand outside a car repair shop and he would entertain his customers by identifying the make and model of cars by simply listening to them as they passed behind him. His opportunity came one day in 1917 the owner of the garage offered to take him on as an apprentice as so many white garage mechanics had left to join the Army. Charlie took to mechanics like the proverbial duck to water and quickly rose to chief mechanic, and was regarded as the best in the city.
At 17 he married a fetching 22-year-old model, Roberta, but his three children all died in infancy. Charlie realised that there were greater opportunities in Indianapolis so in 1922 he and his wife left the area and two years later he opened his own garage on Indianapolis' segregated south side. His abilities were quickly recognised and his clientele who included many of the city's elite as well as racing drivers.
Charlie built his first race car, "The Wiggins Special" from parts scavenged from junkyards. Charlie and his The Wiggins Special were pretty quick. Every year Charlie would enter "The Wiggins Special" in the Indianapolis 500 and every year the governing body, The American Automobile Association would rejected his application.
Charlie and a group of other black drivers decided to form their own racing association and competed among themselves at tracks around the Midwest, attracting large crowds. Charlie gained a reputation as the top black driver and became known among fans as "The Negro Speed King". Charlie came to the attention of wealthy black Indianapolis resident William Rucker and so in 1924, a group of African-American business men, and civic leaders, led by Rucker and two white businessmen, Oscar Shilling and Harry Earl, came together with the purpose of forming a racing league, the Coloured Speedway Association.
With the backing of several sponsors, Rucker established the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, an annual 100-mile race of speed and endurance for black drivers on the one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
The race was covered by noted journalist Frank Young who wrote in terms almost unbelievable to us today, "This auto race will be recognized throughout the length and breadth of the land as the single greatest sports event to be staged annually by coloured people. Soon, chocolate jockeys will mount their gas-snorting, rubber-shod Speedway monsters, as they race at death defying speeds. The largest purses will be posted here, and the greatest array of driving talent will be in attendance in hopes of winning gold for themselves and glory for their Race."
Charlie didn't compete in the first race in 1924, which with a crowd of 12,000 was the largest sporting event held for African Americans up to that point. He did race in subsequent competitions and over the next decade won three Gold and Glory Sweepstake championships.
Charlie, somewhat obviously, became a target from the Klan. They damaged his garage and attacked him on a number of occasions. But Charlie remained an outspoken critic of the segregationist practices of the Indianapolis Speedway.
Harry McQuinn, who raced at Indy ten times between 19334 and 1948, once borrowed one of Charlie's "Wiggins Special" for a race at Louisville. Charlie lent him the car on the condition that he could drive the car during practice to get the car set up properly. When the fans realised a black man was driving, they overran the pits and threatened to lynch Charlie. For his safety the Kentucky Militia arrested him for 'speeding'.
In 1934 "Wild Bill" Cummings invited Charlie to be in his pit crew for the Indy 500. However the Raceway's segregationist practices meant that the only job Charlie could officially hold was that of a janitor. So during the day he would sweep and clean as a decoy and then at night he would work with the pit crew preparing the race car for Cummings. Bill Cummings won that year and for years after, publicly recognised and thanked Charlie for the part he played in that victory.
Two years later, during the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes, Charlie was involved in a 13 car pile up caused by the poor conditions of the track. As a result his right leg had to be amputated. His racing career was over as with it went the popularity of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes. Charlie made himself a wooden leg and for the next 40 years built and repaired cars while training and advising drivers and mechanics as well as continuing his fight against the segregationist practices of the American Automobile Association.
Nearly penniless after years of medical costs due to the injuries he received in 1936, Charlie Wiggins died in 1979 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.