Bud Billiken parade canceled for first time in 91-year history

The largest African American parade in the United States, this year’s event was set for Aug. 8. A one-hour television special will be broadcast on that date to celebrate the history and spirit of the annual tradition.

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Geeksquad members dance during the 90th Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville in 2019.

Geeksquad members dance during the 90th Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville in 2019.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago’s most beloved close-of-summer event, the Bud Billiken Parade, has been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest African American parade in the United States had been set for Aug. 8.

According to a report on ABC7Chicago.com, the parade instead will be celebrated in an hourlong TV special “Bud Billiken: Celebrating 91 Years” that will air at 1 p.m. Aug. 8.

The nationally renowned parade, an annual tradition for generations of Chicago families, stretches for two miles along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive through Bronzeville to Washington Park. Tens of thousands of spectators attend the parade each year, culminating with a back-to-school festival/picnic in the park celebrating education, Black culture, dance, music, food, community and more.

“The Bud” was one of the few summer events in which many of the city’s marching bands, dance troupes and performance ensembles were given a platform to showcase their talents.

Stella Natufe, the special events and media relations coordinator for the South Shore Drill Team, remembers the first time she performed in the parade as a 13-year-old with the drill team. This year marks the drill team’s 40th anniversary, and Natufe was looking forward to its participation in the parade.

The South Shore Drill Team performs while marching during the Bud Billiken Parade in 2007.

The South Shore Drill Team performs while marching during the Bud Billiken Parade in 2007.

Sun-Times File

“You’re presenting something new; everybody is waiting to see you,” Natufe said. “We know that we have to bring it because our young people work very, very hard. [The Bud Billiken Parade] is the highlight of their summer. South Shore Drill Team performs year-round and does parades all over the Midwest. [Drill team members] always look forward to coming back home and showcasing for their friends and family. Not able to do that this year is kind of disappointing, but I believe everyone understands the circumstances.”

The parade, which was co-founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founder of The Chicago Defender, created a children’s section in the historic Black newspaper bearing the name of a fictional editor, “Bud Billiken.”

Some of the parade’s guests through the years have included Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Chance the Rapper.

Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, president and CEO of Chicago Defender Charities, the organization that produces the parade each year, has fond memories of her first Billiken parade and picnic as a 3-year-old. She understands the level of disappointment many Chicagoans have regarding the cancellation. The parade theme this year was Performing Arts and Education Matters.

“It was amazing. I remember seeing Bozo [the clown] because he was always in the parade,” Sengstacke-Rice said. “It was the most exciting time of the year. It’s always good, even today, and we always look forward to it.

“So without that [parade], you know, we wouldn’t be able to help the kids out. So every year we give away about $30,000 to $40,000 in scholarships [through the organization’s Bud Billiken Scholarship Program]. And so we just had to come up with creative ways to still provide support and education.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward includes the parade route and picnic, said she is likewise disappointed about the cancellation but understands the decision.

“It is unfortunate that the Bud Billiken Parade is a victim of the coronavirus pandemic and that our youth won’t have the opportunity to march and perform for their family and friends along historic King Drive,” Dowell said in a statement. “Health and safety, however, should be our priority as Black people are being disproportionately affected by this merciless virus.”

Heavyweight boxing champ Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) rides in the Bud Billiken parade on the South Side in 1966.

Heavyweight boxing champ Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) rides in the Bud Billiken parade on the South Side in 1966.

UPI/File

LeDaryl Billingsley first went to the parade with his uncles and cousins as an 11-year-old. Years later, he brought his two sons to the parade and picnic with his employer Groupon, which had a float in the parade last year.Billingsley, whose father is from the area, said he wanted his sons to experience what it’s like to participate in the historic parade.

Natufe believes the parade and picnic would have had a special meaning to longtime South Side residents this year in light of the pandemic, the recent social unrest and the importance of this time-honored tradition.

“This parade would’ve shown the entire world the power of Black people,” Natufe said. “I think the vibe of the parade — the energy — is always there . . . but I think this year the vibe would have been totally different. This would have been our version of the BET Awards, but on [Martin Luther] King Drive. We would have been showcasing our best, and the pride would have been there.”

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