Bud Billiken Parade marks 90 years: ‘I’ve been coming as long as I can remember being alive’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and thousands more turned out Saturday morning for the 90th run of Chicago’s nationally renowned African American back-to-school parade that is also a family tradition.

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The grills were fired up. The marching bands were playing. The drill teams were dancing.

The air smelled like charcoal as the sun radiated down on thousands of black Chicagoans.

It was 1959 — the year of the 30th annual Bud Billiken Parade — but the first for then 10-year-old Henderson Butler.

“When you’re little, everything is big,” Butler, now 70, said at the parade Saturday. “And it was fantastic.”

“The Bud,” as it’s known, celebrated its 90th anniversary this year.

Geeksquad members dance during the 90th Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville on August 10, 2019.

Geeksquad members dance during the 90th Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville on August 10, 2019.

Sun-Times file

Billed as the oldest and largest African American parade in the country, it’s a back-to-school festival, but also a celebration of black culture, and a staple not only for Chicago’s black communities, but for families across the region.

Every inch of grass along the parade route down King Drive from Bronzeville to Washington Park was covered by thousands of families grilling out, with some selling food, snow cones, and even art as politicians rode by in Corvettes — another Bud Billiken Parade tradition.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot walked with her wife, Amy Eshleman, and their daughter Vivian. Other local, state and federal officials joined them — as did comedian and actor Lil Rel Howery, who grew up on the West Side and was the parade’s grand marshal this year.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot gestures to parade-goers at the 90th Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville on August 10, 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot gestures to parade-goers at the 90th Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville on August 10, 2019.

Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Butler’s mother, 88-year-old Willa Butler, deserves the credit for starting the family tradition all those years ago. She first took her seven children to The Bud after moving to Chicago from Alabama in 1944.

“I brought them and made sandwiches because nobody was selling anything back then,” Willa Butler said.

This year, Willa Butler and four of her sons, including Henderson, were able to make it.

When the family moved into the Robert Taylor Homes after it opened in 1962, Henderson Butler and his siblings joined up with neighbors to form a drill team that marched in the parade for the next decade.

Those neighbors reunite with the Butlers every year at the parade, which they described as a “family reunion.”

“I feel like an older youngster,” Henderson Butler said as he watched a new generation of kids marching in the parade. “Because I can reminisce with what they’re doing and what we did when we came up through here. Nothing but fun.”

The Butlers aren’t unlike most families who go to The Bud, with the tradition being passed down from one generation to the next.

Tramaine Jones, 33, has gone to every Bud Billiken parade for the past 30 years. Now, she’s bringing her four kids.

“I’ve been coming as long as I can remember being alive,” Jones said while selling a snow cone at her stand. Her parents used to bring her, and they would talk about how their parents would bring them.

“I was thinking about it as we were walking up; how as a kid we would actually get our hair done and buy new outfits to come out here to the parade,” Jones said. “We lived about a mile away and we would walk here to the park.

“Dance and music are a prominent tradition in the African American community,” Jones said. “So this is huge. People come from all over, from out of state, to go to this parade. This helps sustain our community.”

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