Charlie Wiggins knew what he was up against – discrimination, segregation, the threat of retaliation, and outright racism – but he also knew he could outdrive any man, regardless of the color of his skin, so he persisted for decades to break the color barrier in auto racing. Though he never saw his dream of a black man racing at Indy become a reality, the Indiana Racing Memorial Association will nevertheless honor Wiggins’s persistence and accomplishments with a historical marker this weekend.
“Truth be told, I think they (the white promoters of the Indianapolis 500) were kinda’ scared of him,” Roberta Wiggins, Charlie Wiggins’s widow, told PBS for its “For Gold and Glory” documentary. “The chance that a colored man might win their race? I think the thought scared the hell out of them.”
Wiggins, according to most accounts of his life, could not only drive to win, he could also build a car better than most from little more than junkyard parts. As BlackPast.org wrote, those skills grew out of a unique opportunity: In 1914, then 17 years old and running a shoe shine stand in front of Benninghof-Nolan – a garage in Evansville, Indiana – Wiggins graduated from watching the mechanics through the garage door to working in the garage. As the white mechanics in the garage left to fight in World War I, Wiggins rose to chief mechanic.
By 1922, however, Wiggins and his wife decided to leave Evansville for Indianapolis, prodded in part by the latter’s thriving black business community and burgeoning automobile industry and in part by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the former. In Indianapolis, Wiggins found a job as a mechanic and meanwhile built a race machine with aspirations of entering it in the Indianapolis 500.
Except, as Todd Gould pointed out in his companion book to the “For Gold and Glory” documentary, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and American Automobile Association at the time enforced unwritten rules banning black drivers from racing – a point the AAA made clear when it banned Barney Oldfield for his unsanctioned race against boxer Jack Johnson. Wiggins tried to enter his Wiggins Special in the Indy 500 during those early years in Indianapolis, but was rebuffed every time.
Then in 1924 his chance to race at least semi-professionally came when William Rucker, Oscar Schilling, and a handful of other black Indianapolis businessmen formed the Colored Speedway Association. Unable to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they chose to stage a 100-mile race on the one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. They called it the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.
Wiggins didn’t participate in that first race, likely due to his insistence that his Wiggins Special wasn’t yet ready, but probably also due to his increasing duties at the shop that he would soon afterward purchase and run as his own. He did, however, enter the 1925 race and every subsequent Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, winning the race in 1926 and securing three overall championships.
By the early 1930s, both his prowess behind the wheel and his mechanical aptitude attracted the attention of Indianapolis 500 racers, among them Bill Cummings, whose Boyle Products roadster won the 1934 race after Cummings’s team smuggled Wiggins into the Speedway as their janitor.
Wiggins also used his success in racing as a platform for racial reform in motorsport, as Gould wrote. Though he didn’t grant many interviews, when he did speak to the press
his comments typically centered on the social injustices practiced by the AAA, particularly their unwritten but clearly understood rules barring African Americans from sanctioned competitions against the nation’s top white drivers. At the request of the Colored Speedway Association, Charlie once made a public statement to the Chicago Whip. His comments were supposed to focus on his recent win in Detroit. Instead Charlie told the reporter “We have the desire and the skill to compete with the nation’s best. The AAA folks just don’t want to see that. That’s why we must work to prove our ability within our own ranks, so that we can show the rest of the world that we belong.”
Around 1930, Wiggins also began to mentor younger mechanics and drivers – among them Leon “Al” Warren, Charles “Dynamite” Stewart, and Sumner “Red” Oliver – a tradition he would continue even after the 1936 racing accident took Wiggins’s right leg and eye, ended his racing career, and led to the end of the Colored Speedway Association. “In their own way, Charlie and Roberta Wiggins represented the backbone of black auto racing coast to coast, epitomizing the spirit and courage of the African-American population in the midwestern United States,” Gould wrote. “The results of their actions would be seen for decades to come.”
Joie Ray, the first black racer to compete in AAA-sanctioned races in 1946, pointed to Wiggins as an inspiration. Oliver became the first black mechanic in Indy 500 history in 1973. Wiggins, however, died in 1979, a full 12 years before Willie T. Ribbs became the first black driver to qualify for the Indy 500.
To celebrate Wiggins’s life and accomplishments, the IRMA will unveil a historical marker dedicated to the racer at the Evansville African-American Museum in Evansville this Saturday. For more information on the marker and the event, visit IndianaRacing.org.