For a few hours last Saturday, thousands of people gathered along King Drive in Bronzeville to take part in the annual Bud Billiken Parade. Stretching from Oakwood Boulevard to Washington Park, the street turned into an endless flow of dance troupes, drill teams, and high school marching bands from across the South Side, all there to celebrate education and the upcoming school year—this year’s theme.
Now in its eighty-ninth year, the parade is a South Side institution. And since it was founded by the Chicago Defender in 1929, it’s grown into the largest African-American parade in the country. This year, rapper Vic Mensa and actor Deon Cole served as co-Grand Marshals, a role previously filled by Barack Obama, Chance the Rapper, and Chaka Khan.
The parade is also an annual who’s who of Chicago Democrats. This year, gubernatorial candidate JB Pritzker marched with his blue-clad posse of supporters, enthusiastically waving to sporadic chants of “JAY BEE, JAY BEE.” Mayoral hopefuls with their eyes on the 2019 election—eight of them including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, by the Tribune’s count—followed with decidedly smaller entourages, interspersed with a slew of state and county officials.
For Bronzeville resident and former Democratic precinct captain Zakiyyah S. Muhammad, the parade is an opportunity to make sure her voice gets heard. She was camped out on the sidelines with a bullhorn and “Rahm Emanuel Has Got To Go” written on a tent behind her.
“I come out here every year for the last sixty years. We get an opportunity to have free fun with our family and enjoy each other, people we haven’t seen for years and years come back to the old neighborhood,” she said. “Because you know Rahm Emanuel is trying to push Black people out of their communities, and he’s been doing a good job of it, so we don’t see each other like we used to see each other.”
But for many parade-goers, the political bonanza took a back seat to spending the day with family, waiting for friends to march past, and cheering on their favorite float or performance. When asked why they come to the parade, almost everyone the Weekly talked to had a simple answer: it’s a tradition.
“This is my family’s heritage, my background,” said Fred “PawPaw” Kelly, who attends every year with his grandchildren.
We spoke with people who have been coming to Bud Billiken for the past four, five, even six decades—and a few newer faces, too.
“I do this every year, I used to march in the parade. I’m seventy-five years old now—I was in the parade when I was sixteen. I’m never gonna miss the parade. We got baby back ribs, rib tips, and chicken. We usually have sausages but I didn’t go all the way on the North Side because I know how the traffic was gonna be.” Ron Hollis, 75
“[We’ve been coming] every year since my children were born. The oldest one is sixteen. It’s a family tradition and it’s just part of Chicago. It’s our back-to-school parade and it gives us a boost to be around the community. It’s good for the kids to see positive influences and see the politicians up close, see the bands, and just the positive things that go on in the city as opposed to the negative.” Tanya Sawyer, 52, Bronzeville
“This is my community and I feel that we need to be out here representing and taking care of people in the community, introducing them to good health, and the services that they have available—to make sure that they know they can access those services. [The parade] shows the successes and gives people some inspiration, so they can continue to go to school and be active participants in society. And also I think it highlights some of the talent on the South Side of Chicago. I like the tumblers, the marching bands. I just like the ambience, the fact that this is a chance for the community to see who their leaders are, and to know that they have an impact in voting these people in and out to get the services they need on the South Side of Chicago, which is very underserved.” Dr. Crystal Cash, Provident Hospital
“[The parade] really means something to us because our grandmother was one of the first people to attend an [integrated] school in Chicago. So we really respect that about her and we really want to represent her in something like this, so we want to go every time.” Brandi Byrd, 14, Matteson, IL
“I’ve got my great-grandkids and my grandson out here. This is a tradition. It means a lot to Black people in general. It shows that we can all get along, we can all participate, make things better. And we bring the kids out so they can begin to see the tradition, and carry it on. That’s why I’m here. We do a lot of positive things in the community and in the world, this is just a taste of it.” Mike Green, 66, Blue Island, IL
Quinn Myers is a contributor to the Weekly. He is an audio and print journalist living in Pilsen. This is his first article for the Weekly.
Bridget Vaughn is a producer for South Side Weekly Radio and a photographer for the Weekly. She last contributed an interview with jazz singer Tracye Eileen in May and was part of the team for SSW Radio’s reporting on Englewood high school closures and the history of Robeson High School.