Backtrack: Extra! Extra!

Pie-eating contests, swimming, junk food. For years, the annual Indianapolis Recorder picnics were a summertime highlight.
It was the early years of the Great Depression, and parents were struggling to make ends meet. So Fannie Caldwell Stewart, owner and publisher of the Indianapolis Recorder, and her son, Marcus C. Stewart, decided that the city’s African-American newspaper was going to throw a picnic for its carriers and their families.

That August 1930 to-do proved newsworthy, at least in the black community. “Upward of 2,000 kids and 500 grown ups” attended, according to a report in the Recorder. A band made up of orphans furnished the music, and there were “games of every conceivable description,” plus basketball, boxing, skating, and dancing, all surrounding the day’s showstopper: a yummy lunch. The line for the meal was “several blocks in length,” said the Recorder, as hungry picnic-goers waited their turn for sandwiches, cakes, ice cream, and lemonade. The newspaper declared it “a humdinger of a success.” It was an auspicious start to a tradition that lasted 40 years or more: The Recorder would go on to annually treat African-American boys and girls, often from underprivileged families, to a day of food (including the best, junky kind), fun, and hijinks.

These were never run-of-the-mill, sitting-on-a blanket-in-the-sun affairs. There was swimming, pie-eating contests, music, races, and often some special guests. The Indianapolis Star reported in 1954 that Ezzard Charles, a former world heavyweight champion, attended and refereed three boxing matches among the kids at the picnic. Players from that year’s state basketball champion, Milan High School, and from Crispus Attucks High School taught the kids a few tricks.

For the 1961 picnic, which was held at Camp Belzer, 3,500 kids clambered aboard 22 buses at the Recorder offices at 518–20 Indiana Avenue for a ride to the Boy Scout outpost on the city’s northeast side. A motorcycle police and sheriff cavalcade escorted the buses, and the officers were also treated to the picnic and a hangout with the youngsters upon arrival. Singing groups entertained, the interracial Indianapolis Judo Club showed off its skills, and a disc jockey spun tunes so the kids could Cha-Cha, Pony, and Continental to their hearts’ content.

But by 1967, attendance dropped by half, and as time went by, the Stewarts decided to discontinue the picnics. The affairs were revived in the late 1980s under the newspaper’s new owner, Eunice Trotter, but only briefly. These days, the Indianapolis Recorder children’s picnics exist only in hazy memories of fun, food, and frolic.