During the 1920s, a group of African-American sportsmen
raced through a cloud of segregation and hatred in their
quest for the greatest prize of all…respect. Soundbyte
off camera: “They recognized that they were on
stage. They tried to show that they deserved increased
rights and privileges in this community. And ‘Gold
and Glory’ was part of that effort.” The
true story of a forgotten sports legacy…For Gold
This program is made possible by grants from the Indianapolis
Motor Speedway…by the Indiana Humanities Council…and
by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In 1991, Willie T. Ribbs became the first African American
to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. His accomplishment
was historic. And yet, it was only the pinnacle of a
remarkably rich racing legacy that preceded Ribbs by
nearly seven decades.
The Gold & Glory Sweepstakes was the race that belonged
to the colored people. It was ours. There was truly
glory attached to winning it.
…And the people in these towns, I mean, all of
us, we were treated like some of the biggest celebrities
and heroes you’ve ever seen, because to them…the
banks would close down the day of the race. The stores
would close. Everybody would come out to the fair.
The 100-Mile race was the only race that blacks could
be a part of, because we could not be a part of the
Indianapolis became a segregated city in the 1920s in
a way that it had not been before, and to a much larger
degree than it had ever been before. And it maintained
that level of segregation for quite a period of time.
In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan cast a dark shadow over
the social and political landscape of the Midwest. Popular
entertainment venues like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
were rigidly segregated during the decade. African Americans,
Catholics, Jews and other groups experienced an intense
type of prejudice rarely seen in the states north of
the Mason Dixon Line. Yet, in the midst of this social
unrest, a group of African American sportsmen, led by
an unlikely hero, stormed full speed into the teeth
of Jim Crow attitudes. They created a sporting event
the likes of which had never been seen in popular American
culture-a racing spectacle so grand it attracted the
attention of national newspaper and newsreel agencies,
as well as thousands of spectators from coast to coast.
Most of the black drivers from around the country would
come when they had those races. And it was fun to be
there, and to see…ha, ha…(:25)
Emerging from a cloud of dust came a group of black
racing pioneers who faced real danger, both on and off
the track, in their quest for the greatest prize of
It had much greater weight to it than just a sporting
event. They tried to show that they deserved increased
rights and privileges in this community. And Gold &
Glory was part of that effort.
When you had something like the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes,
this became a very important event. And indeed it became
the Indianapolis 500 for the black population. And they
tried to make it into a state fair, a revival meeting,
an automobile race, and an annual convention all rolled
into one. And they succeeded.
Title Graphic: For Gold & Glory
Open graphic - music stings
Font: The Adventurer
“The Negro Speed King.” That’s what
they called him. All those people would come out to
the Fairgrounds for those big races. And, my! Charlie
always had something to show ‘em. Those folks
were just crazy about him. Any wife would be scared
to watch her husband carry on so. And I was scared for
Charlie. But he wasn’t scared of nothin’.
Charlie was the best. - Roberta Wiggins
(Highway Man intro music under graphix)
Charlie Wiggins was a hell of a man. We could talk about
Charlie Wiggins as a mechanic, his ability as a driver.
We could say all those things. And without the pejorative
function, without the sexist connotation, we have to
say at the end of the day that he was a man.
Highway Man music full (:10)
In the 1920s, automobile production was an emerging
industry. Indianapolis, Indiana, was one of the largest
auto manufacturers in the nation. More than 250 different
makes and models of commercial cars churned off the
Indy assembly lines during the decade, feeding a consumer
frenzy that grew rapidly across the country. The industry
gave rise to entrepreneurs who welded sheer enthusiasm
and mechanical know-how into exciting, new business
opportunities. One of those entrepreneurs was Charlie
Wiggins, a south side garage owner who was widely regarded
as the city’s top auto mechanic.
Charlie was…he was an adventurer. He was a tough
guy. But he was an athlete. And he was smart, and he
wasn’t afraid to do something that he wasn’t
supposed to do…ha, ha…
Charlie was born in a segregated neighborhood in the
southern Indiana town of Evansville. He earned money
by shining shoes on a downtown street corner, just in
front of a local garage. The manager of the shop once
asked if he could “turn a wrench,” and Charlie
quickly and eagerly accepted a position as an apprentice.
I think he was as hard as his cars, you know. He was
as hard as his cars. He’d be the kind of guy that
if you were in a fight, he wouldn’t walk away
from you. He’d stand by your side. And those guys
are few and far between. Those folks are rare.
In 1923 Charlie and his wife Roberta opened a family-run
garage in Indianapolis, where automobile production
was in high demand, and automobile racing was in its
You had very few state-of-the-art racetracks in those
days. They were very rough…lots of holes, bumping
There were wooden rails all around, and if you went
through those wooden rails, chances are you might get
a wooden rail through you and through your car.
Your body was exposed from the waist up. No roll bar
They didn’t have seatbelts. Others would rather
get thrown clear, because the cars were so sturdy that
if you got into a flip, it was better to be thrown out
on the first turn-over and land on the ground, rather
than ride it out in the car. A race track would get
so dusty that the only way you could follow your way
around, you couldn’t see in front of you or around
you, but you could look up and go by the trees and actually
drive and when the trees turned, then you knew that
you were in a turn and then just hope that somebody
wasn’t in front of you.
Racecar drivers, they were a combination of brains and
brawn, which was the evolving definition of manhood.
Brains and brawn, your ability to manipulate your physical
environment, especially the mechanical environment,
and then you have the mental, courageous aspect of getting
in that car and doing it. In a way, they were the maestros
Dip to black
Font: The Dawn of a New Opportunity
In 1924, Charlie Wiggins built his first original racecar
from a heap of discarded parts at a local junkyard.
He dubbed his creation “The Wiggins Special,”
and tested the car on dirt tracks around the Midwest.
Though he raced on raw, dusty surfaces, his speeds often
equaled those of the fastest drivers on paved tracks
like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the biggest
and most popular race in the country, the Indianapolis
Newsreel audio: At the Indianapolis brick track each
year is conducted a major racing classic…and it
had its thrills!
Charlie tried on several occasions to register his “Wiggins
Special” at the Indy 500 and other races. In each
case, the lily-white promoters of the American Automobile
Association-the governing body of auto racing-enforced
unwritten, but clearly understood, rules regarding minority
participation in official, sanctioned events. They steadfastly
refused to allow an African American to compete for
racing’s greatest prize.
The best thing that the colored people could do at the
500 would be to do the picking up and cleaning up and
maybe selling some pop and things like that, you know.
But not to be a participant, and if they did get in,
then they had to go to the colored section of the stands.
So that was the normal behavior at that time.
He just wouldn’t give up. Race after race, he
kept on entering his car. And race after race, they
kept turning him away. But he was proving a point. He
was exposing their prejudice. The white drivers all
liked Charlie, but those promoters would have nothing
to do with him. Truth be told, I think they were kinda’
scared of him…the chance that a colored man might
win their race? I think the thought scared the hell
out of them. - Roberta Wiggins
The AAA pushed aside the young mechanic. But Wiggins’
efforts were not completely in vain. His vision and
fortitude piqued the interest of William Rucker, one
of Indianapolis’ wealthiest and most influential
black citizens. A flamboyant promoter and contractor
with a passion for politics and fine cigars, Rucker
formed powerful allies among white politicians in the
city and black civic leaders along Indiana Avenue in
the heart of Indianapolis’ African American district.
Whenever he walked down the street, he’d have
a cigar in his mouth, always. You wouldn’t see
him without a cigar in his mouth. And he would wear,
more or less, a derby hat. And whenever the women would
come by, he’d call them “Miss” or
Cut to Rucker CU from CSA organizers. He just knew everyone,
and everyone knew him.
Rucker brought together noted businessmen and promoters
from the black neighborhoods, along with two white railway
tycoons who agreed to lend financial support. Together
they formed an Indianapolis organization dedicated to
promoting African Americans in auto racing. They called
the group The Colored Speedway.
There was a meaning to the association. It’s about
what we display to a white community that we, too, can
master this machine age, that we’re a part of
the machine age, just like you are. We also have the
bravery and courage to compete in this sport, even though
it’s death defying and risky. And we have the
wherewithal in our community to support our drivers.
Whether you come and watch them or not, we’re
going to come and support them. So that is a very significant
set of statements and events that means so much more
than the race drivers at that point.
The first act of the Association was to plan an annual
racing event for African Americans the likes of which
had never before been seen-a 100-mile test of speed
and endurance to be held on a one-mile dirt track at
the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. Rucker
had a keen sense for the promotional ballyhoo of the
era. When he announced a date of August 2nd for the
big event, he invited Chicago Defender journalist Frank
A. Young, known for his bombastic writing style, to
come to Indianapolis and report on the historic occasion.
“July 1924…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
colored 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.” - Frank Young
report inspired Rucker to christen the event The Gold
& Glory Sweepstakes.
There is this confluence of social change that came
forth to produce this really interesting phenomenon
called the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes. Black folks
wanted to participate, wanted to be a part of the major
social events of the day. And since automobile racing
was extremely important, they wanted to be a part of
that, as well.
“August 2, 1924…This Gold & Glory event
is the dawn of a new opportunity, another step forward,
the brushing away of another barrier, another obstacle
met and surmounted by our group in the realm of sports.”
- Frank Young
March music full
On race day, the scene erupted into a menagerie of color,
sound and pageantry. Fireworks, parades, daredevil stunt
shows, and a crowd of more than 12,000
created an electric environment surrounding the world’s
single largest sporting event ever held for African
I loved to hear the drum of the motor. It’s a
thrilling sound, just like it is at the 500 Mile Race.
Just to hear those motors racing. It’ll give you
a kick, really…ha, ha…
They had a pretty good crowd, because that was the first
time anything like that’d happened. And we couldn’t
ride with the white boys, you know.
Al Warren was a pilot and delivery truck driver who
competed in the early years of the Gold & Glory
It’s just kinda’ the love of the racing.
I think it had to be people with an active spirit that
wanted to be doing something, and I think that was it.
A rookie at the Gold & Glory event was Sumner “Red”
Oliver, an auto mechanic from Dayton, Ohio.
They had a large crowd. And told them, “I ain’t
never drove in a competition like this.”
They dropped the flag for qualifying…I proved
I was a driver that morning…That was the most
exciting day I ever saw.
“Pres” Rucker knew what he was doing. He
knew that some day, there would be an opportunity for
a colored person to race, hopefully, in the big race.
But we’ll have to show them that we can do it
The most celebrated competitor of the era was Charlie
Wiggins. Over the next six years, Charlie captured three
Gold & Glory championships, and finished in the
top five for ten consecutive years. His popularity inspired
promoters in other cities to spotlight Charlie in black
racing events throughout the Midwest, where fans wildly
embraced the slender mechanic from Indianapolis.
A hundred miles on a rough, rocky, dusty track is a
long way. And it will tire out even the strongest of
guys. And you had Charlie being 100 pounds and a wiry
fellah. I tell you, that 100 miles must have been a
Font: “100% American”
In the continuation of Gold & Glory, they had increased
pressures placed on them by the rigid lines of segregation
The place where this general intolerance has its most
visible expression is the Ku Klux Klan. This is the
period, this is the time, this is the place where the
Klan achieved its largest and most powerful kind of
activity. In Indiana, in Indianapolis, in the 1920s,
the Klan became exceedingly powerful.
The Ku Klux Klan began its reign of intimidation and
political manipulation in the Midwest in the early 1920s.
D.C. Stephenson, a charismatic salesman and shameless
self-promoter, brought Klan leaders and Indiana Republican
party officials together in 1924 to promote a common
agenda thinly veiled in Christian values and American
patriotism. More than one-third of all white Protestant
males in Indiana were members of the Klan by 1925. Hoosier
recording studios pressed and distributed Klan records
by the thousands.
1924 Klan recording sample: “That’s Why
I’m A Klansman”
“That’s why I’m a Klansman, and where
a Klansman’s mask. And raise my hand toward heaven,
and shoulder the Klansman’s task.”
This roaring decade, this Jazz Age, becomes a time of
great intolerance for some Americans, particularly for
those native-born white Protestant Americans who create
these “others” in their head, these Less
Than 100% Americans, who indeed are threats to the life
and the way of the American nation.
Sound effects - Marion lynching photos and haunting
It seemed as though lynchings were a thing of the past,
and here in the hot summer of 1930, two black teenagers
are dragged by a white mob in Grant County, Indiana
and taken to the courthouse square and lynched in a
tree in the courthouse square-murdered by a mob of angry
whites, who had believed that they had murdered a white
man and had raped a white girl. That was the impetus.
But the broader impetus, of course, was race, and the
difference between black and white, and the fears that
some whites had and the hatred that some whites had
of African Americans. That was part of the spark of
that lynching in 1930. It tells all black people that
they’re not going to be guaranteed justice in
this nation, in this place, as long as two black teenagers
can be lynched.
In the state elections of 1924, Klan-backed political
candidates swept all of the major contests in Indiana,
including the Governor’s office. To celebrate,
the Klan staged a political march down Indiana Avenue
in Indianapolis’ African American district. Among
the onlookers that night were Charlie and Roberta Wiggins,
who had come to the Avenue to hear a jazz concert. The
march sent a chilling message to Charlie and the rest
of the crowd: The Ku Klux Klan was now the most powerful
political organization in Indiana.
They formed neighborhood organizations. One was the
White Supremacy League. And when a black family moved
into a white neighborhood, a grenade was thrown through
the window in that family’s home…a sign,
a statement, a threat of violence and intimidation.
Usually the intimidation was of words and coldness,
of a hostile, cold welcome to make blacks feel uncomfortable.
Occasionally it was stronger. Throwing a grenade through
the window of a home of a black family is a very strong
statement to a black family moving into a white neighborhood.
It’s one of those side-by-side things. You have
Gold & Glory coming into its infancy and trying
to become a sustained endeavor. And you have Indianapolis
forming rigid lines of segregation.
One target of the White Supremacy League was Charlie
Wiggins. As an outspoken critic of segregationist practices
at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Charlie and his
family often found themselves directly in the Klan’s
line of fire.
(Narration) ROBERTA WIGGINS: “One time they tore
down the sign in front of the garage. Another time they
threw rocks through the window. A time or two they hid
in the bushes, two or three of ‘em. They’d
jump out and attack Charlie when he went out. He’d
fight ‘em off every time. He’d just get
mad. But I’d cry. Ever try to get the blood out
of your husband’s shirt? That was the worst thing
of all.” - Roberta Wiggins
Harry MacQuinn, an Indy 500 driver and close friend
of Wiggins, once entered a race in Louisville, and asked
Charlie if he could drive one of the mechanic’s
famed “Wiggins Specials.” Charlie agreed
with the stipulation that Wiggins himself would drive
the car during qualifications to test the engine and
make mechanical adjustments prior to the race.
What driver is going to let somebody else shake their
car down for them? Not many. Most want to do it themselves.
Charlie reserved that for himself. He said, “I
can loan you my car. I’ll build it. I’ll
fix it, whatever. But it’s my car, and I reserve
the right.” And if you think about how difficult
it must have been to negotiate that kind of relationship
to another driver: “I’m going to take it
out for its practice laps, not you.” That’s
a temerity that not many blacks in the early 20th century
had the ability, as Charlie did, or maybe the courage,
which Charlie did, to pull off.
When fans at the Kentucky Speedway realized that a black
man was driving the car during qualifications, an angry
mob stormed the pit area, threatening to lynch the man
behind the wheel. The Kentucky militia quickly stepped
in and arrested Charlie for his own protection. At police
headquarters, the captain filed a detailed report. For
the records, the captain listed a reason for the arrest:
The fact that Charlie was able to overcome not only
very obvious and clear racial prejudice, and not only
to succeed in his business, but to succeed as an independent
businessman, to rise certainly to the top of the black
racing league, and eventually to advise some of the
top racers in Indianapolis, he had to be a man who was
very strong internally, and really a heck of a guy.
Dip to black
Font: The Negro Speed King
By 1929, the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes was black
auto racing’s crown jewel.
The circuit sponsored by the Colored Speedway Association
had expanded from a small tour of midwestern cities
to a national phenomenon.
We raced in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio. I mean,
you just looked forward from one race to the next. “Well,
when is there going to be another?” Or someone
sends you an entry blank, you know, someplace, and you
get ready for it. You don’t care whether it’s
over in Illinois, Wisconsin, wherever.
Thousands gathered in each city to catch a glimpse of
the colored circuit’s greatest attraction, Charlie
Wiggins. The black press crowned him “the Negro
Speed King.” And the genial garage owner from
Indiana seldom disappointed his legion of loyal fans.
“July 1926…’Wee’ Charlie Wiggins,
that plucky young mechanic from Indiana, had to build
a special seat in his chassis to boost his tiny body,
so that he could reach the gears of his homemade creation.
But at the end of this grand Gold & Glory event,
it was not the mechanics that mattered, but the mechanic
himself. As Wiggins crossed the finish line well ahead
of the pack, a wild burst of applause greeted him from
his home-towners, some of whom lost their heads and
ran across the track, despite the yells from cooler
heads, warning them that other drivers were still pushing
their metal steeds at top speed for second place honors.
In the end, no one was hurt, and Wiggins welcomed the
stirring ovation.” - Frank Young
The beauty of his cars wasn’t that they looked
good standing still. It’s that they could perform.
That was their function. They were built for that. And,
by God, he built them! And that meant that he could
sit in that cockpit and push that machine to its limit,
it shows his mastery of his car and his craft, but also
the mastery of himself.
Charlie often staged promotional stunts to arouse curiosity
and attract more spectators to the track. One of his
biggest stunts involved his wife, Roberta.
Had she lived at another time, she could have been a
racecar driver herself. But even among black men, this
was not something that a woman was supposed to do. But
she was into racing. She felt it.
She liked racing herself. And she was a good driver,
very good driver. Uncle Charlie would often joke about
pitting her against anybody who wanted to take her on…ha,
Charlie’s biggest rival on the circuit was Bill
Jeffries, a beefy Chicago bondsman and real estate broker
with ties to noted gangsters and underworld figures.
“Wild Bill” as they called him, would often
show up for races wearing expensive coats and extravagant
diamond jewelry. He was the antithesis of everything
Charlie Wiggins stood for. At a Colored Speedway event
in Cleveland, Charlie was about to raise the stakes
in their annual rivalry, while raising the ire of the
“I’ll never forget that race in Cleveland.
There, in front of all those fans and reporters, Charlie
told ‘em that he’d stake the race’s
purse that old “Wild Bill” couldn’t
beat me in a one-on-one heat. ME! …I mean, I’d
driven Charlie’s cars during some warm-ups and
all, but I ain’t never raced in competition like
that. The papers called me ‘the Mystery Woman
Driver.’ No woman had ever competed in auto racing
before. It was quite a stunt. We had nearly 15,000 people
come out that day just to see me get in that car. Charlie
was just loving it, I could tell. All I could think
was, “What in the world am I doing here?”
- Roberta Wiggins
When race day came, the “Mystery Woman Driver”
was the grand marshal at a parade prior to the big event.
The summer sun was relentless that hot August day. As
Roberta waved to the crowd, she paused to glance at
her husband…then fainted. The doctors who examined
her made a surprising discovery. Roberta was pregnant.
“I told Charlie I wanted to go on with the race.
I didn’t want all those people to think that I
was backing out on them. But Charlie refused. He thought
it was too dangerous for me. I begged him, but he still
wouldn’t let me race. I looked into his eyes,
and I could tell he meant it. I drove a lap or two at
the track by myself and waved to the crowd, but that
was it. My racing days were over.” - Roberta Wiggins
A decade before this pregnancy, Roberta had given birth
to the first of three sons, each born nearly a year
apart. But before each child reached his first birthday,
he contracted a severe form of tuberculosis and died
in infancy. Unfortunately Roberta’s pregnancy
in 1928 would also be heart wrenching. A month after
her event in Cleveland, Charlie returned from his garage
late one night to find Roberta doubled over on the floor
with severe stomach pains. Blood was on the carpet.
An emergency room doctor told the couple that Roberta’s
health would not allow her to bear children. While his
wife lay exhausted and sleeping in her hospital bed,
Charlie took her hand, bowed his head, and cried. Years
later, Charlie told a reporter, “I never feared
danger of any kind on the track. But I feared for Roberta
like nothing I’d ever known.”
Dip to black
Font: Charlie’s Gang
He had a garage. And there were just many of the young
black men and young white men who would gather there,
because it was entertaining. They loved being around
him. And, I don’t know, there was something about
Uncle Charlie that would draw you in as a young person.
And you just enjoyed being around him. And he had lots
of young men that were there at the garage all the time.
They began arriving early every afternoon. Young men
with a passion for automobiles would migrate to Charlie
Wiggins’ garage nearly every day to share jokes
and watch the master mechanic in action. They were known
as “Charlie’s Gang.” All were brought
together by an unquenchable passion for the sport and
a deep respect for the man who gracefully and skillfully
worked his magic under the hood.
I got to going down by his garage, just going down and
watching them working on the race cars and things. Charlie
was swell. Everybody liked Charlie. He’d take
time to explain things to everybody.
One of the Charlie’s favorite stories revolved
around another young man who often visited the garage.
He was a teenager Charlie simply knew as “Johnny.”
The mechanic and the young man shared many passions,
including hunting, fishing, and, of course, automobiles.
Charlie tested some of his cars near Johnny’s
home in the country town of Moorsville, Indiana. Wiggins
often invited the teen to come and watch him practice.
Over the years, Wiggins lost touch with “Johnny.”
One morning in July 1933, Charlie opened his morning
paper and was surprised to see “Johnny’s”
picture on the front page. The headline read, “Public
Enemy Number One.” The eager young teenager with
the passion for fast cars was the notorious John Dillinger.
** Dip to black **
It’s really a great American art form that is
often not recognized…the great mechanical ability.
And this was much, certainly, in the black community
as it was in American society as a whole. Guys who worked
in garages who just were always trying to invent “the
better mouse trap.” And I think Charlie Wiggins,
particularly, later on, proved that his practical experience
One devoted member of “Charlie’s Gang”
was Bill Cummings, considered a rising star at the Indianapolis
500 and other AAA-sanctioned events. Cummings first
sat in a racecar in Wiggins’ garage. By the 1930s,
Bill Cummings was one of the top competitors in all
of auto racing. He was one of the favorites to take
the checkered flag at the 1934 Indy 500. Stopping by
Wiggins garage one day, he asked Charlie to serve on
his pit crew. But the AAA would not allow Cummings to
hire the talented black mechanic. So Cummings agreed
to hire Wiggins as a janitor, which was the only job
the Speedway allowed for African Americans. Charlie
accepted the position and spent his days sweeping floors
and taking out the garbage. Then, late at night, when
AAA officials had left the track, Charlie went to work
with Cummings’ pit crew to manufacture a finely
1934 Newsreel: It’s race day in Indianapolis.
Speed is king, and thousands are gathered here to see
the cream of the world’s racing pilots and racing
cars compete in this 500-mile classic…The race
begins, and the pace car gets out of the way. Roscoe
Turner waves them on. And with a full-throated roar,
the race is on!..
On the day of competition, Cummings roared to the finish
line well ahead of the field and captured racing’s
Newsreel Audio: Five laps…and still Cummings
holds his slender margin of lead. And here comes the
flag… “Wild Bill” Cummings wins! A
great finish to one of the greatest races ever in Indianapolis
Charlie was forced to watch the race from a “Coloreds
Only” section of the grandstand. When the race
was over, Charlie quietly returned to his garage.
But Cummings never forgot his mentor. For years after
the 1934 event, he publicly recognized and thanked Wiggins,
the man he called “one of the greatest mechanics
I’ve ever known.”
I think there’s a kind of common experience in
racing, the danger, the excitement of it, the mechanical
skills required, the whole combination of things that
make it such an exciting and attractive sport that transcended
the racial tenor of the times.
It supersedes race. And even in the early 20th century,
when race was much more prominent and a larger hurdle,
for these guys to overcome, it was for Cummings to come
to Wiggins, because of the social conventions of the
day, when Wiggins couldn’t go to Cummings in that
way. Cummings had to come to him, and that was OK…Cummings
was elevating the mastery of his craft, and he was able
to do that with the knowledge that this guy provided.
** Dip to black **
Font: A Bad Premonition
It had been a long, difficult journey, but by 1936 Charlie
Wiggins and the Colored Speedway Association had finally
achieved their goal of creating a longstanding social
event that celebrated the ingenuity and entrepreneurial
spirit of the African American population. That summer
the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes was to be the grandest
affair in the circuit’s history. Every major black
newspaper in America sent reporters to Indianapolis
to cover the event.
The excitement level was extraordinary. Just to get
the number of people out to these events that they did
was an extraordinary achievement. And again, it was
all planned that way.
It was the height of the Great Depression, and almost
every major American racing circuit had gone bankrupt.
But with the name of Charlie Wiggins, the Colored Speedway
circuit’s biggest drawing card, on the marquee,
fans continued to come out in record numbers and support
black auto racing’s grandest event.
(Narration) ROBERTA WIGGINS: “I will never forget
that day as long as I live. Charlie and I stood near
the track before the race and watched all those people
walking about. It was quite a sight, and I was very
excited. But then, I can’t quite explain it, but
I got this awful chill in my body. It was strange. I
looked at Charlie, and he was all ‘serious-looking.’
I could tell he felt it, too.” - Roberta Wiggins
At the beginning of the 1936 race, Roberta, Charlie’s
wife, said to Prez Rucker, “I don’t feel
good. I feel like something is going to happen. I just
don’t know. There wasn’t anything that she
knew that would cause that, but she knew that something
was going to happen.
During races on paved surfaces, the track requires little
preparation before the race begins. Prior to dirt track
events, however, it is customary for officials to spend
an hour watering the track in an effort to keep down
the dust and create a safer surface for the drivers.
With the dirt track at the Fairgrounds watered and ready,
the drivers of the 1936 Gold & Glory Sweepstakes
took their positions at the starting line. But before
the race could begin, a car owner from Chicago began
to protest loudly to race officials about some questionable
technical specifications in one of the other cars. A
heated argument ensued over the next two hours, with
several drivers, pit crew members and owners taking
part in the shouting match. Charlie Wiggins simply pulled
off his helmet and sat on the hood of his car with a
look of quiet concern on his face.
“A lady next to me asked if Charlie was bothered
by the folks arguing. But he wasn’t looking at
them. He was looking at the track. It was drying out,
you see. And the drier it gets, the more dangerous it
gets. At one point while we waited, Charlie came over
to me. He had had a bad premonition. He looked out over
the track, shook his head, and told me, ‘Somebody’s
gonna’ get hurt today.’ I cried and begged
him not to go out there. But he just held me close and
said, ‘You can’t ever be afraid. You have
to face it. No, you can’t ever be afraid.’”
- Roberta Wiggins
After two hours, they dropped the green flag, and the
It was so dusty you couldn’t see where you was.
I had to feel my way through…
I heard the crowd screaming…BAM! Someone said,
“There’s a wreck on the far end.”
The wreck sent one car airborne into the infield. Thirteen
cars skidded out of control and slammed into a swelling
My car was the sixth car into the wreck. Now they had
to take the steering wheel off me to get in the car.
I don’t know how I got out of there so quick.
But I got out there, jumped over the fence, and that’s
when I heard Charlie yelling, “Take it off my
leg! Take if off my leg.” So I tried to lift the
car, and about that time, I looked back and heard the
motors coming, so I jumped back there, and sure enough,
it hit Charlie’s car and knocked it about as far
as this with him hanging there.
I jumped out there with Charlie, and that’s when
that boy hit him…hit him sideways. Charlie went
sideways…and it crushed Charlie’s leg.
Drivers, mechanics and distraught fans rushed to the
accident. One by one, they pulled drivers out of the
fiery scene. Breaking through the restraints of race
officials, Roberta Wiggins dashed across the infield.
Someone screamed, “He’s dead. Charlie’s
dead.” Roberta fell to her knees as they pulled
Wiggins’ limp, unconscious body from the wreck.
Still clinging to life, Charlie was covered with blood.
An ambulance rushed the racing great and several other
drivers to a local hospital. Most suffered only minor
injuries. Doctors only listed one driver in critical
“They said, ‘Wait here,’ and they
pointed to an old wooden chair. I sat outside that surgery
room for hours and hours and never moved. Funny…There
was all this activity at the hospital, but I don’t
think I heard a thing. It was just kinda’ silent,
like everything was standing still.” - Roberta
Back on Indiana Avenue, the Gold & Glory gala ball
was in full swing. The annual black tie affair attracted
hundreds of partygoers, both black and white, and featured
some of the greatest musical talents in America. But
when word of Charlie’s condition spread through
the crowd that night, few felt like dancing. At 12:30,
race promoters commissioned a nurse to set up a makeshift
table in one corner of the dance hall. They announced
an emergency blood drive for Charlie Wiggins. Dozens
of race fans quickly volunteered to help their fallen
hero…At 2 AM, nearly 12 hours after the wreck,
doctors emerged from the emergency room and stood before
Roberta Wiggins…Her husband would live, but the
wreck so severely damaged his right leg, they had to
“They finally allowed me to go see him. I held
Charlie tight. He seldom cried, but that day, we both
sat holding each other, and we cried and cried. Racing
meant so much to Charlie. And now we knew that his racing
career was over.” - Roberta Wiggins
* Dip to black *
The 1936 race not only marked the end of Charlie Wiggins’
career, but the end of the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes,
as well. For twelve years the Colored Speedway Association
overcame racial prejudices to create new opportunities
for African Americans in the realm of sports. But in
the heart of the Depression, without the league’s
biggest attraction, attendance dwindled and profits
dropped. Faced with crippling financial pressures the
organization folded after the 1936 season.
** Dip to black **
Font: These Men of Grease and Grit
His racing career had been cut short, but Charlie Wiggins
refused to give up on his passion for automobiles. Weeks
after the accident, he returned to his garage. There
he fashioned a wooden leg using a lathe in his workshop.
For the next forty years, he continued to build and
repair cars, training new generations of drivers and
There are some people, and I think Wiggins is one, who
can build a car and love it for that creation, but still
push it, because in his own life, he realized that pushing
yourself to your limit doesn’t endanger you. It’s
what made you alive.
Charlie really did break some ground. The fact that
he was well known, and visited by important Indianapolis
drivers and mechanics meant that he made, in his own
way, I think, a very important, dignified statement
of integrity about the black population and its place
within automobile racing, and in society as a whole.
“Of what will younger generations speak when they
talk of the accomplishments of these great colored racers?
Will it be that with heart and heavy-foot, they might
become the fastest in the land? Or will it be that they
did something far greater? For these men of grease and
grit are a celebration of all that is grand for our
Race. Let us hope that our children speak of the latter,
for it is in this moment that we have achieved true
greatness.” - Frank Young
It was a social event. And it was a great honor to be
a part of it, because it was successful, and because
the people who won these races were heroes.
He was the best that we could be; just like Joe Louis
was the best that we could be, just like Jackie Robinson
was the best that we could be. Those people were our
** Dip to black **
Music and nature sound effects montage
Cemetery shot (push in) with font:
“Charlie Wiggins died in 1979.
Roberta passed away in 1998.”
“Charlie was hindered by a recurring
sickness brought on by infections to his
wounded leg. Yet, until the day of his
death, Charlie continued to train young
mechanics and crusade for increased
rights for African Americans in
“Mounting medical costs left Charlie
and Roberta nearly penniless at
the time of Charlie’s death.
“He is buried here, in an unmarked grave,
at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.”
There’s more information about the Gold and Glory
Sweepstakes available at PBS Online. Explore Charlie
Wiggins’s career, go on tour with the drivers,
and explore other aspects of civil rights history. To
learn more, log on to PBS.org.
To order “For Gold and Glory” on videocassette,
or the companion book to the program, call PBS Home
Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS.
This program is made possible by grants from the Indianapolis
Motor Speedway…by the Indiana Humanities Council…and
by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.