August 10, 2016
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How a parade that honors African American youth lifts up the entire community

87 years strong, Chicago's Bud Billiken Parade is largest African American parade in the nation

In 1929 newspaper publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott wanted to get the children in his south side Chicago neighborhood excited for the start of the school year. A prominent advocate for education and the founder of one of the nation’s foremost black newspapers, Abbott used his influence and power to support his emerging community as thousands of African American families moved to the city during the Great Migration.

So in the late summer of that year, he gathered the paperboys at the Chicago Defender, gave them bikes to decorate and musical instruments to play and organized the boys as they paraded down Grand Blvd., shouting for their neighbors to come join the procession.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Defender Charities

Eighty-seven years later this Saturday, the Bud Billiken Parade, named after the editor of the paper’s children’s section, will march down the same route, culminating in the center of Washington Park, where families will have gathered since sunrise in anticipation for the festivities, according to Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, the vice president on the board of directors for the Chicago Defender Charities, which runs the Bud Billiken Parade.

“It’s almost like a family reunion,” Sengstacke-Rice said. “People get out there early in the morning, as early as 6 in the morning, and they’re barbecuing with their families.”

For Sengstacke-Rice, it’s especially a family affair. She is Abbott’s great-grandniece. Her grandfather John H. Sengstacke ran the parade for 57 years. And now her cousin Marc Sengstacke is the executive director of the Chicago Defender Charities.

"In the midst of all the negativity we hear in the news, here’s a positive way to celebrate our community." – Myiti Sengstacke-Rice

Sengstacke-Rice moved back to her hometown from New York City in 2008. When she did, it was clear which neighborhood she would choose: Bronzeville, a neighborhood that was a center for African American culture and resurgence during the early 1900s. Its name coined by a Chicago Defender writer to represent the skin color of its residents, Bronzeville was also known as The Black Metropolis. The Defender was at the heart of that, featuring iconic writers like Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

Today the hues of the Bronzeville residents resemble a wider range. “There‘s a lot of diversity. It’s not just African American, we have people moving in here with all different nationalities. … The community is really growing,” Sengstacke-Rice said.

And so is the parade. The largest African American parade in the nation, it’s grown from the coterie of paperboys, known as the Bud Billiken Club (famous alumni include legendary jazz artists Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole, Sengstacke-Rice said) to a community-wide celebration that includes a picnic, performances, and giveaways. Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Oprah, and then-Senator Barack Obama have all served as grand marshal. This year, Chicago native Katherine Branch, who serves as the Director of Special Projects at the White House, will lead the parade. Close to 200 participants will take part, from corporate sponsors, marching bands, and the famous Jesse White Tumblers, student-athletes from Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods. The children are clearly the star of the parade.

“It gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. You can see it on their faces,” Sengstacke-Rice said. “It means so much, not just to children but to the community as a whole. I’ve even talked to people who said they met at the Bud Billiken and later got married. It’s been a great inspiration for us for many years.”

Sengstacke-Rice sees it every day when talking to the youth in her neighborhood.

“They’re always happy to say ‘I was in the Bud Billiken Parade.’”

This year’s celebration begins at 9 a.m. local time Saturday at the corner of Martin Luther King Drive at Oakwood Blvd. If you’re in Chicago, you can watch it on the local ABC station WLS-TV from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. More details are on the event’s website.

Top photo by Flickr user kojoman68

Margaret Myers

The Renewal Project Editor