In its basic elements, it’s like any other big-city parade: floats and marching bands in colorful uniforms; high-stepping, baton-twirling majorettes; beauty queens, waving atop convertible sedans; high-profile politicians glad-handing crowds that line the streets.
But Chicago’s annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, set to step out into its 94th edition on Saturday, is not just another parade. Among the largest parades in the nation — and with origins in a storied Black newspaper that fought for civil rights — the Bud Billiken is the only one that’s created by, for, and about Black people.
Created nearly a century ago to honor the children who hawked editions of The Chicago Defender on Windy City street corners, the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic has evolved into an unabashed celebration of the city’s Black culture.
Held annually on the city’s South Side on the second Saturday in August, the parade winds through the city’s Black neighborhoods and culminates in a massive cookout and festival that draws tens of thousands of people (and big-name performers) to Washington Park.
Bonds of kinship and cultural pride are embedded in the celebration, which serves as a public affirmation of Black humanity, and as a balm against the slow-healing wounds of racism.
“The notion of this 94-year-old parade is the second biggest parade in the U.S., and that it centers around the love, joy, and experiences of (Black) people — that is itself joy,” says Dr. Sharon L. Bethea, president of the Association of Black Psychologists Inc., and a counselor education and African/African American studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University.
In the days leading up to the parade, Black Chicago is filled with near-palpable energy, Bethea says, as vendors and food booths set up along the parade route and spectators jockey for the best viewing spots as the hours tick down.
There’s a feeling of pride and ownership, she says, that makes the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic “the epitome of representation of Black joy. To be around it is infectious.”
Although the parade features elaborate floats, skits, and no small amount of Black pride, the origins of the Billiken Parade are relatively simple. In the mid- to late-1920s, Robert S. Abbott, The Defender’s shrewd publisher, created an advice column aimed at hooking grade-school readers, who would then convince their parents to subscribe to the paper.
Named after a Billiken, the traditional Chinese good-luck statue and patron saint of children, the Bud Billiken column emphasized positivity and optimism for Black children — and it was a hit.
Building on that success, the paper created the namesake parade in 1929, to thank its young newsies for selling the paper, but also mark the unofficial end of summer and help raise money for back-to-school supplies, along with putting Chicago’s Black community in a positive light. Over time, the parade grew from a relatively humble event into a can’t-miss, end-of-summer tradition — rivaled in scope only by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California.
And everyone’s invited, Bethea says: celebrities from Michael Jordan to Oprah Winfrey and then-Senator Barack Obama, running for the White House. Underserved children can get back-to-school supplies. Older kids can say goodbye to summer with a big party. And adults greet one another at a civic family reunion that has survived the test of time.
Bethea remembers her first time at the parade in the early 2000s, after moving to Chicago from California. Having never heard of the parade, she struck up a conversation with “an elder,” a Black woman who told her of the event’s origin.
“She was 70,” Bethea says. “She said, ‘When I was a kid, I marched in the parade. I’ve been coming every year since.’”
Bethea has, too.
“People come out and cook and share,” she says. “People are barbecuing, selling their wares. Vendors are out. And it ends up in the park where everybody celebrates life.”
But her favorite part of the parade is the battle of the bands, when Chicago’s finest musicians and bands from historically Black colleges and universities — representing blues, jazz, and funk — square off for bragging rights, and to make people move.
And so the Bud Billiken Parade marches on, decade after decade, because it speaks to the resilience of Black people. It celebrates the fullness of who we are. Despite the blows of racism and losses that cut deep, every August, Black Chicago gives us a model of what it looks like to heal through joy and rise — over and over again.
“It’s an amazing event,” Bethea says. “I can’t wait.”
This story was produced in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.