Circle City Classic is a weekend celebration of African American achievements, culminating in an annual football match between two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Patterned after the Bayou Classic held in New Orleans, it is an annual event that brings to Indianapolis two football teams from the HBCU to play in what has become the second-largest Black college football classic in the nation. Since its inception, the event has raised nearly $3.5 million for college scholarships for needy recipients and has given Indianapolis an economic boost of more than $8 million annually.

Members of the Mississippi Valley State University team raise the Circle City Classic trophy, 1984 Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

With a $150,000 grant from the lilly endowment, inc. as seed money, Charles Williams, then president of the Indiana Black Expo, founded and organized the first Classic in 1984. The goal was to provide a sports event in the Midwest for alumni of Black colleges, as well as encourage Black youths to attend college. The festivities originally included the game, a parade, and several parties.

The Hoosier Dome hosted the game from 1984 to 2007 during which time the stadium changed its name to the RCA Dome. The new Lucas Oil Stadium has hosted the event since 2008.

The Classic has grown in popularity each year. An average crowd of 175,000 people experiences a weekend that honors the history, educational accomplishments, and talents of African Americans. Weekend events have varied over the years but have included an NCAA coach’s luncheon, a pageant coronation, prayer and praise worship service, a cabaret, a spectacular parade, a pep rally, musical performances, a battle of the bands, an education day, and the football game. Williams’ original idea to establish a sporting tradition in the Midwest has grown into a celebration of sports, music, arts, and culture.

The Circle City Classic staff and advisory board organize the events in conjunction with the Indiana Black Expo, the Indiana Sports Corporation, and approximately 3,000 volunteers. While the game is still the focal point of the Classic, there are over 25 official events in addition to numerous privately sponsored parties that occur over two weekends.

Marching band in the Circle City Classic Parade, 2019 Credit: Ted Somerville/For IndyStar, Indianapolis Star via Imagn Content Services, LLC View Source

The Circle City Classic NCAA Coaches Luncheon has become one of the main events. At the Ncaa Hall Of Champions, the Major Taylor Award is presented in honor of Marshall “Major” Taylor, the renowned Indianapolis cyclist. Since its establishment in 1987, the award recognizes an African American athlete, coach, athletic administrator, or official who makes a significant local and national contribution to youth and encourages excellence in future generations.

The Circle City Classic Coronation typically takes place the weekend before the football game. Marian University and the Julia M. Carson Government Center have both hosted the pageant, whose foundation is teaching young women lessons on leadership, scholarship, etiquette, and personal finance.

The Circle City Classic Prayer and Praise Worship Service takes place on a selected evening leading up to the Classic. St. John Missionary Baptist Church, where Classic founder Charles Williams became an ordained Baptist minister in 1987 and spent time as an associate pastor, hosted the night of prayer and worship during the initial years of the event. The location of the service has changed over the years yet the service has remained fundamental to starting the Classic’s weekend festivities.

Other events have included the Circle City Classic Cabaret, which brings together legendary musical acts that have performed at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and Indiana Convention Center; the Circle City Gospel Music Explosion featuring gospel artists who perform at the Madame Walker Theatre, located on historic Indiana Avenue, a pep rally held on Monument Circle, the Circle City Classic Education Day Party, which provides middle school and high school students the opportunity to meet representatives from over 40 HBCUs; and the Circle City Classic Parade, which features floats and marching bands in one of the crowning events of the weekend. All these activities lead to the weekend’s climactic event, the Circle City Classic football game.

In August 2022 Indiana Black Expo announced the Circle City Classic would not feature the football game between Black colleges and universities for the second time since the event was founded in 1984. The game was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, performances from five HBCU marching bands and a step competition among fraternities and sororities became the feature event at Lucas Oil Stadium. The traditional pep rally and parade continued. 

Revised March 2021

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