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Bud Billiken Parade returns to South Side: ‘We are all here to have a good time’

Some groups along the Bronzeville parade route roped off their space out of an abundance of caution for COVID-19, which wiped out the annual back-to-school gathering last year.

Geek Squad performs during the Bud Billiken Parade in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. The parade, which was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is now on its 92nd year.
Geek Squad performs during the Bud Billiken Parade in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. The parade, which was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is now on its 92nd year.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Bud Billiken Parade, a beloved end of summer and back-to-school tradition, returned to Bronzeville Saturday after a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of Black Chicagoans of all ages lined a shortened parade route through the South Side neighborhood to watch the city’s youth put their talents on display under a scorching sun.

Adults tried to beat the summer heat by lounging in lawn chairs under shady trees, umbrellas and tents, while children slurped their snow cones out of styrofoam cups as the sound of drums, music and the crowd’s cheers echoed down the streets.

“For me, it’s just the music, the bands, the groove,” Stephanie Hall said as she bounced to the beat. “… [Some people] might be from 79th [street], they might be from 87th, from 51st — we don’t know each other. We all are here to have a good time. That’s what I like.”

The Bud Billiken Parade, the oldest and largest African American parade in the nation which has been going on for more than 90 years, is a must-attend event for many Black Chicagoans, who have passed the tradition down from generation to generation.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a baby, and I just keep the family tradition going,” Tiny Reed said. “This means a lot to me.”

Similar to Reed, Darren Mayo said he’s been coming to the annual parade for as long as he can remember.

“I still try to come for my nephew to try to show them the tradition that my grandparents showed me,” Mayo said.

His favorite “Bud” memory took place in the 1980s as a kid living in the nearby Robert Taylor Homes, a former public housing project. He recalled seeing then-Mayor Harold Washington waving, smiling and pointing while sitting in a convertible.

“As a young kid, we very rarely got to see certain people until things like this, and that’s what made it very special,” Mayo said. “That’s why I still come now today… I’m glad they still do it as well, ‘cause without this, there wouldn’t be nothing.”

On his 15th year attending the parade, Michael Strong said “the environment, the music, the dancing, and the kids” is what keeps him coming back.

“Everybody’s happy out here it seems,” he said alongside his 3-year-old son. “It’s beautiful, it’s a good thing.”

Some people staked out their spots more than five hours before the event, with several groups using paper streamers or string to rope off their space out of an abundance of caution with the Delta variant of the coronavirus raging on.

Parade goers cheer during the Bud Billiken Parade in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Parade goers cheer during the Bud Billiken Parade in the Bronzeville neighborhood, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Even with the social distancing, many still felt an overwhelming sense of community.

“I’m just happy to see everybody together like this and it’s all love, with no drama — that’s what it’s all about,” said Keke Burch, who came from Lake County with Strong and their son. “When everybody comes together like this, and it’s all love, good vibes, good energy, everyone vibrating at a great, higher frequency.”

Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker, the grand marshal of this year’s parade and festival, rode on a Wintrust Bank float for most of the parade, though she had to duck out early for practice, parade president and CEO Myiti Sengstacke-Rice said.

Other notable attendees included Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois.

The 74-year-old congressman, who first marched in the “Bud” as part of the Boy Scouts Drum & Bugle Corps when he was 11, said the parade remains as exciting as it was when he was a youngster.

“I’m just as thrilled to be a part of Bud Billiken today as I was then,” Rush said.

Everyone rejoiced for the parade and festival’s return after the pandemic canceled it last year, though some were disappointed in the decision to shorten the route, with some putting the blame on Lightfoot.

“They cut it 10 blocks, but they didn’t cut Lollapalooza,” Reed said. “They let it go for [four] damn days.”

Sengstacke-Rice said she understood the frustrations over the condensed event by some, but chose to look at the bright side: “At least we had an event because a lot of people had to cancel, but we were able to still have an event,” she said.

Overall, she considered the day a success.

“We had a great time, I’m OK with it,” Sengstacke-Rice said. “And we’ll come back bigger and better next year.”