Barriers went up as marching bands and drill teams perfected their performances during final rehearsals for one of the most climatic events of the summer that has defined Black Chicago for nearly a century. The 93rd annual Bud Billiken Parade made its way down Martin Luther King Drive this past weekend and like in years past it was an all-day, show stopping affair for over 250,000 people.
Black Chicago viewed the nation’s largest Black parade under perfect weather as temperatures were expected to be 82 degrees with sunny skies.
But 93 years ago, the Bud Billiken Parade was held in Chicago’s brutal winter season during its first two years. Picturesque South Parkway (now King Drive) was lined with naked trees, and brown grass carpeted the scenic boulevard as spectators watched the event from windows inside their homes as temperatures outside plummeted below zero.
It was a different atmosphere then, than what the storied event is today. Black Chicago and the Chicago Defender were undergoing significant change from the Great Depression and the Great Migration. Chicago Mayor Big Bill Thompson was seeking the Black vote for a fourth term. The Regal and Metropolitan Theaters were popular destinations amid South Parkway’s historic grand mansions.
The Defender as America’s premier Black newspaper was declining in circulation, going from a high of 283,000 after World War I to 110,000 copies in 1930, one year after the collapse of the stock market triggered the Great Depression. By that year, the Defender moved out of Bronzeville resident Henrietta Lee’s house and settled into new headquarters at 3435 South Indiana Avenue.
Defender founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s struggle with Bright’s disease began to take its toll as his nephew, John H. H. Sengstacke took the helm at the paper after graduating from Hampton Institute, which today is the HBCU Hampton University in Norfolk Virginia.
As the Depression gripped the city, the Defender had a flourishing Bud Billiken department that created a special club for thousands of Black children throughout Chicago and America. Many served as newsboys and newsgirls selling the Defender on the streets. Children seeking to become members could fill out an application in what was then The Chicago Defender Jr. edition, dubbed the “World’s Greatest Children’s Weekly.”
As soup kitchens and unemployment lines grew, Abbott and several Defender staff decided to hold a parade that would come to be officially known as the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic.
But unlike today’s parade, the first and second editions were held in the winter, according to Ethan Michaeli’s 2017 book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
Dave Kellum, the third editor of the Chicago Defender Jr. edition, oversaw the Bud Billiken department and increased the club’s children membership to 65,000. But the greatest challenge facing him and the legendary Marjorie Stewart Joyner was the new Bud Billiken Parade, which was held on South Parkway before the street was renamed Martin Luther King Drive after the slain civil rights leader in 1968.
Michaeli’s book described the Bud Billiken Parade in 1930 this way:
“On Saturday, February 15, 1930, the temperature in Chicago sank to a frigid zero degrees Fahrenheit, weather distinctly inopportune for a parade. Nevertheless, a few dozen boys and girls clambered into the trailer of waiting trucks while others got into their parents’ cars as a caravan assembled at The Defender’s headquarters.
“Cold or not, this was the second annual parade to honor the children who delivered the newspaper as well as the members of the Bud Billiken Club, and everyone was determined that it go ahead.
“Rolling through the neighborhood’s frosty streets, the convoy was escorted by Chicago police officers on motorcycles with Robert Abbott in his flag-draped Rolls Royce limousine in the lead, followed by cars [Defender Attorney] Nathan McGill and the Illinois attorney general, floats from local companies, including the Wet Wash Laundry, and finally the trucks holding the most redoubtable newsboys and girls in the USA.
“A few onlookers braved the cold to stand on the sidewalk, but many opted to view the parade from behind the windows of their warm houses, apartment buildings, and offices.
“Finally, the procession came to a halt at the back of the Regal Theater, just across the street from Abbott’s mansion on South Parkway, where the newspaper had promised a day of free candy, entertainment and contests.
“Anticipating a huge crowd, The Defender’s staff had booked the Regal, precisely because it was one of the larger venues in the community, but even with the frigid weather keeping some away, it took an excruciating three hours for managers to get all forty-five hundred people who had queued up inside, a task they accomplished only by asking the smallest children to share seats with their peers.”
Michaeli several pages later said: “On Saturday, August 15, 1931, Dave Kellum held his first summertime Billiken Parade, a mass event that involved nearly the entire community, above all the children, who gorged themselves on free ice cream, candy, red lemonade, and Cracker Jack under the hot sun.
“As with the previous parades, the convoy assembled at the Defender’s headquarters and became a slow-moving line along Thirty-Fifth Street and down South Parkway. A troop of Boy Scouts and a drum and bugle corps led the procession, followed by a fancy new Lincoln carrying Kellum and a Pierce-Arrow bearing Jazz great Duke Ellington.
“After a flotilla of convertibles came a row of trucks provided by a local furniture company carrying some ten thousand cheering Billikens from the South Side as well as sizable contingents from the West and North Sides, along with the private cars of club members’ parents and other supporters.”
According to Michaeli, that year, Abbott was too ill to participate or attend the event, but the parade paused in front of his mansion at 4742 South Parkway (now King Drive), where he stepped out onto his front porch with his wife.
Michaeli said when the marchers reached the grandstand at Washington Park, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, white actors who played the Black Amos and Andy on WMAQ radio’s controversial Amos ‘n’ Andy Show were present.
The show depicted the lives of two migrants who travel from Georgia to Chicago. During the minstrel theater, the men wore blackface and their show often contained racial stereotypes, so much so, The Defender’ chief rival, the Pittsburgh Courier, had called for one million signatures on a petition to the Federal Radio Commission demanding that the show be pulled from the airwaves.
With the first summertime Billiken Parade hailed as a “tremendous success,” the Courier’s owner Robert Vann penned an editorial “Has the Defender Turned Amos and Andy?” By the end of September, Vann boasted that he had already collected 515,000 signatures, but the show was never pulled. The Defender’s longtime entertainment columnist Salem Tutt dismissed the Courier’s petition as a publicity stunt.
Eight years later, Abbott died at his home as the National Negro Publishers Association, known today as the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Black Press of America, held its first convention under founder John H. H. Sengstacke’s leadership at the historic YMCA at 38th and Wabash in 1940.
But Abbott’s Bud Billiken Parade marches on.