The Bud Billiken Parade

Bud Billiken Parade, Chicago, 1973. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last two installments of my series on race and DOCUMERICA, we’ve explored the contrasting visions of Black Chicago shot by African American photojournalist John H. White during the early 1970s. On the one hand, many of White’s images showcased the impact of environmental racism, with the lives of poor and working-class Black Chicagoans being shaped by deindustrialization, disinvestment, and urban decline. On the other hand, White’s DOCUMERICA assignment highlights how Black Chicagoans sought to remake the world around them; transforming spaces imbued with narratives of loss and neglect into outlets for cultural and community resistance.

More than any other single event, the Bud Billiken Parade embodied the efforts of Black people in Chicago to stake a claim to the city – to reimagine the dangerous and downbeat Black “slums” sensationalized in the Chicago Tribune and other dailies as sites of creativity, pride, and self-expression. Bud Billiken was a character conceived by Chicago Defender editor Lucius Harper during the early 1920s and tasked with “editing” the newspaper’s youth section. Initially conceived as a marketing ploy, the character captured the imaginations of young African Americans across the country, with the Defender inundated with applications to join the “Bud Billiken Club.” In November 1928, the Defender collaborated with the Regal Theater at 47th Street and South Parkway to host “Bud’s First Big Gay Party.” Comprising of a street parade followed by entertainment at the Regal, the Defender promised the occasion would be “the biggest event Chicago has seen in years.” 

By the early 1930s, Defender publisher Robert Abbott and contributor David Kellum had decided to move the parade from a frigid winter affair to a summertime extravaganza. On August 15, 1931, a huge convoy gathered at the Defender’s headquarters on South Indiana Avenue before moving eastward on 35th Street and then proceeding down South Parkway towards Washington Park. Here, children “gorged themselves on free ice cream, candy, red lemonade, and Cracker Jack,” and enjoyed a range of park games and performances by Black entertainers. Historians Peter Rutkoff and William Scott contend that within a decade of its founding, the Billiken Parade had become “Chicago’s African American New Year, Decoration Day, Fourth of July, and Mardi Gras all rolled into one.” After a bumper August 1945 installment, the Defender reported that some 10,000 parade participants had been cheered on by more than half a million joyful observers.

The Billiken Parade would continue to grow during the years following World War II. This was underpinned by the continued expansion of Chicago’s Black community, with the onset of the Second Great Migration during World War II stimulating a resurgence of Black migration into the city. In 1940, the city’s Black population was 277,731, or a little over 8 percent of its total population. By 1970, this number had grown to more than 1 million people, constituting around one-third of the city’s total population. The Black percentage of the city’s total population would continue to rise throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, consolidating a powerful Black economic and political bloc that ensured the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first African American mayor in 1983.

This population expansion, alongside the ways in which it shifted Chicago’s political power base during the postwar decades, are both captured through White’s photographs of the 1973 Bud Billiken Parade. Wide shots of the parade route show thousands of Black residents lining the road as far as the eye can see. Other photographs highlight the participation of influential Black politicians such as Ralph Metcalfe, a former Olympic track star and a longtime South Side alderman who was elected to Congress in 1970 as the Democratic candidate for Illinois’ first district. Black demographic and political power meant that white politicians such as Dan Walker, elected as the 36th Governor of Illinois in 1972, also participated in the parade as a means of currying favor among Black voters. 

However, the continued growth of the Billiken Parade also occurred against the backdrop of, and in some ways can be read as a response to, shifts in the city’s public policies and their disproportionate impact on Chicago’s Black communities. As I have already discussed in previous installments of this series, a massive expansion of urban renewal and public infrastructure projects in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s uprooted Black communities across the city and in particular on the South Side. At the same moment, the city embarked on what Simon Balto describes as its “postwar punitive turn,” with Chicago’s witnessing a massive expansion of police power that was profoundly racialized. Expressed plainly, “as cities like Chicago got blacker, police officials constructed systems of invasive, hyperaggressive, and racially specific surveillance, and worked to implant them as sanctioned public policy.” 

With the onset of the “long hot summers” of the 1960s and growing fears of Black urban revolt, instances of targeted police brutality and racially discriminatory surveillance of Chicago’s African American residents became more acute. Perhaps no incident captures the wonton racism and criminal overreach of Chicago’s law enforcement than the murders of Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton and party member Mark Clark in December 1969, as part of a raid on Hampton’s West Side apartment conducted by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the CPD, and the FBI. These and other instances prompted high-profile Black politicians such as Metcalfe to break from the Democratic machine of longtime mayor Richard Daley, and contributed to a deterioration of relationships between African American residents, law enforcement, and the city’s white political elite. They also tested the relationship between Defender publisher John Sengstacke, who had assumed control of the paper in 1940 following Abbott’s death, and the CPD, whom he relied upon to help manage the parade. This often-uneasy relationship can be seen in the background to White’s photographs, with parade participants being watched over by members of the city’s law enforcement.

As the Black population of Chicago and other major American cities expanded into the 1970s, municipal officials and business leaders fretted that large-scale public events such as the Bud Billiken Parade could become potential flashpoints for racial unrest. This undercurrent can be traced through White’s DOCUMERICA images – from the mixed visual response of parade onlookers to white politicians such as Dan Walker, to the ubiquitous police presence. Yet much more than this, the scope and scale of the Billiken parade provided the perfect vehicle for White to pursue his aim of capturing Chicago’s Black community in all its sprawling diversity and complexity – to show not just how African Americans grappled with environmental racism and the racially disproportionate impact of the “urban crisis,” but also how Black communities in Chicago and in cities across the country sought to foster community pride, showcase Black achievements, and lay claim to the neighborhoods they lived in.

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. He is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk