October marks the beginning of Black History Month – an annual celebration of black and brown heritage in the UK. The automotive industry has a long and proud history of successful figures with black and brown heritage; not least the subject of our first FJ Black History Month feature – racing driver and mechanic Charles ‘Charlie’ Wiggins.
Born in Evansville, in the ‘Hoosier State’ of Indiana in 1897, Charlie Wiggins’ path to racing glory was incredibly hard-fought. His story is a shining example of success in the face of adversity, and what can be achieved even when the odds are truly stacked against you.
Charlie’s early life was blighted by the untimely death of his mother, when he was just 9 years old. Two years later he left school to provide income for his father and siblings, plying his trade as a shoeshine boy. With a stall pitched outside a vehicle dealership, it was then that Wiggins discovered his passion for cars. He’d study the dealership as he cleaned and polished, watching the mechanics and longing for the chance to work on the vehicles himself. In 1917, as the war effort drew mechanics away to Europe, he finally got the opportunity to realise his passion - joining as an apprentice.
Wiggins wasted no time making his mark. Through sheer grit and determination, he rose through the ranks, earning himself the position of chief technician. By 1922 he had purchased a vehicle repair garage from his employer – itself an astounding achievement as a black man in the segregated Midwest. It was here that he began work on the Wiggins Special, a homemade bitza racing car that would be Charlie’s golden ticket to the racetrack.
The segregationist attitudes of the day meant Charlie Wiggins was never allowed to compete in the legendary Indianapolis 500, despite the event being on his home turf. Although difficult to imagine today, African American applications were turned away by the American Automobile Association throughout the period. Incredibly, a black person did not compete in the Indy 500 until 1991.
But Charlie’s passion for speed was strong enough to overcome the barriers presented to him. Behind the wheel of his homemade Wiggins Special, he began to compete in the Gold & Glory Sweepstakes – a 100-lap event organised by the Coloured Speedway Association (CSA) – taking home victory an incredible four times.
His racing success helped grow the popularity of the CSA, creating opportunities for other African American automobile enthusiasts, but sadly his racing career was cut short by a 13-car collision at the 1936 Gold & Glory event.
Tragically, injuries sustained during the crash meant Wiggins was never able to compete again. Many have imagined what else he may have achieved, had he been allowed to compete on a level playing field – but his legacy lives on through the successful Black and Brown racing drivers that have succeeded him.
Were you aware of Charlie's story? Let us know in the comments below.