The crack of a baseball bat; the screech of the referee’s whistle; the cheers of an excited crowd. These are a few of the sounds of spring in Indianapolis and there’s no better place to experience them than at Watkins Park.
Watkins Park is located at 2360 Martin Luther King Drive on Indy’s near Westside. The city acquired the land for this 21-acre neighborhood park in 1913 and was developed to give residents living northwest of downtown a place to relax and play. It was originally called Northwestern Park and is part of the Fall Creek Parkway section of George Edward Kessler’s Park and Boulevard system. A community center featuring an indoor gymnasium was built in 1939.
With a southward gaze, park visitors enjoy picturesque views of the Indianapolis skyline. Families gather to share a meal under the picnic shelters, while children make new friends on the playground. In warmer months, the park is home to the popular ‘Jazz in the Park’ summer concert series. But it is Watkins Park’s ample sports facilities that make it a popular destination for athletes of all abilities. Basketball courts, football and baseball fields, tennis courts, and horseshoe pits provide places for friendly competition.
In the 1920’s, Northwestern Park was the home field of the Indianapolis ABCs, the city’s Negro National League team. The team, originally organized by the American Brewing Company (from which the team takes its name) placed second in the league in 1922, led to victory by Baseball Hall of Fame members Oscar Charleston and Ben Taylor. The ABC’s success was short-lived; the team folded just a few years later.
Baseball may be the national pastime, but basketball is Indiana’s most beloved sport. No discussion of the history of Watkins Park would be complete without remembering the 1955 Crispus Attucks boys basketball team. The all-black high school was formed in 1927, during the height of Indianapolis’s segregationist fury. Indianapolis’s black community embraced the school, praising its students’ outstanding academic and athletic achievements that went largely ignored by the school board and the city’s white residents. But it was the Flying Tigers’ success on the basketball court in the 1950s that brought the city’s black and white fans together. After falling to tiny Milan High School in the 1954 semifinals, the team vowed to make the finals the following year. Milan went on to win the championship that year; their story late inspired the 1986 movie Hoosiers. The Flying Tigers made good on their promise. On March 19, 1955, the Crispus Attucks Tigers tipped off against Gary’s Roosevelt High School at Hinkle Fieldhouse in the Indiana High School State Athletic Association’s championship game. When Crispus Attucks bested Roosevelt 97-74, they became the first Indianapolis team to win the State championship.
But the victory was overshadowed by racial tension. In 1950s the IHSSAA Basketball Champs were treated like local celebrities. Following the game, the winning team was honored in a ceremony on the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, followed by a parade through the streets of downtown Indianapolis. The Crispus Attucks team expected nothing less for their efforts.
After the ceremony on Monument Circle, the team piled onto the back of a fire truck. The parade was routed back to Watkins Park for a bonfire, an outright snub to the athletes who brought home the city’s first state title. Oscar Robertson, Attucks’ star player and later twelve-time NBA All-Star, wrote about the night in his autobiography, stating “We weren’t savages. We were a group of civilized, intelligent young people who through the grace of God had happened to get together and win some basketball games. We’d just won the biggest game in the history of Indianapolis basketball.” He recalled leaving the bonfire early, going home and telling his father: “Dad, they don’t want us.” On a night when these young students should have been celebrating their athletic achievements, they were instead thrust into the center of the city’s racial strife. The team went on to win the tournament again the following year, after having the first undefeated season in IHSSAA boy’s basketball history.
In 1961, Mayor Charles H. Boswell took an important step toward repairing race relations in the city by appointing Reverend Charles T.H. Watkins as a member of the Indianapolis Board of Parks. Watkins was a remarkable community leader and a pastor at the historic A.M.E. Bethel Church. In addition to being a prominent civil rights activist, Watkins developed programs to feed the city’s impoverished. A gifted painter, Reverend Watkins painted the mural depicting African American musicians, artists, and scientists inside the community center. The park was later renamed in his honor.
Today, Watkins Park remains a place where communities come together. Whether cheering on sports team, tapping their toes to jazz tunes, or pitching horseshoes, Indianapolis residents can enjoy a variety of recreation opportunities beneath the shadow of the city’s skyline.