Uniquely Chicago, Bud Billiken Parade Has Rich, Important History

Image courtesy Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library

There are a lot of things we in Chicago can be proud of as uniquely our own. From cuisine to the Bean to river dyeing, how we talk and even live, we’re our own unique blend of flavors, neighborhoods and culture, and it’s something to be proud of.  The city’s not without its problems and divisions, but in a time when dividing lines are being redrawn, we’re reiterating our position as a sanctuary city. And come this Saturday, we’ll be celebrating the return of school days and the African-American community at large with the Bud Billiken parade. The event was born out of a desire to do the right thing, celebrate African-American life and culture in Chicago and call out inequality.  It’s become one of the largest parades in the U.S., only slightly smaller than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. 

So, who is Bud Billiken? Turns out, he didn’t exist. It’s something of a portmanteau, combining a nickname for one of the parade’s founders and managing editor of the Chicago Defender, Lucius Harper, and a character from Chinese mythology said to be the guardian over all children. The Chicago Defender, founded in 1905, was a daily news source for African Americans in Chicago and beyond, written by African Americans. It provided an unfettered voice for the fight against inequality, and its distribution extended far beyond city limits. Pullman porters distributed it well beyond the Mason-Dixon line, and the publication became a lifeline and strong voice for those facing oppression in the South. 

The founders of the Defender also came together to found the Bud Billiken Club, which started as a social club for African-American youth and encouraged reading, good social conduct and community involvement. Members sold newspapers, and outstanding achievements were recognized by the Defender, which eventually set aside a special day to recognize club members. Initially held in the fall, this event quickly moved to the summertime and was marked by a parade and picnic. The very first Bud Billiken Day parade stepped off in 1929.  

Photo via Curtis Morrow, Flickr. Creative Commons

Today, the Bud Billiken Club still exists as Chicago Defender Charities, and supports youth in the community by providing scholarships and job training as well as school supply giveaways. Each year, there’s a contest to determine the parade’s king, queen and court all the way through to royal adviser. This year’s queen is fourth grader Isis Dixon, who was crowned along with her court last Sunday.  

In addition to the court and the lineup of performers, each year the parade has its own theme and a special grand marshal. The 2017 theme is “Honoring Our Hometown Heroes.” This theme seems to extend to the choice of grand marshal for the year, Chance the Rapper. Chance has been a huge voice for the community and the city at large, using his position of celebrity to support Chicago Public Schools and backing up his words with his own charity, SocialWorks, and his recent donation of $1 million to Chicago Public Schools. Chance, who grew up in Chicago celebrating the parade, really seems to embody its spirit. This year, in addition to being grand marshal, Chance will be giving away 30,000 “stuffed” backpacks to attending schoolkids. 

This year’s Bud Billiken Parade will step off at 10 am on Saturday, August 12. The route is from King Drive south from Oakwood Boulevard to 51st Street and ends at Garfield and Elsworth. As per tradition, following the parade there will be a picnic in Washington Park with free giveaways “and other treats.”You can either watch live along the parade route or on tv where WLS-TV Channel 7 will be covering the action live. But however you participate, you can be proud of this uniquely Chicago tradition and everything it stands for. For more parade information check out the official site here.  

Marielle Bokor
Marielle Bokor