The Bud Billiken Parade drove thousands of people to Bronzeville on Saturday morning for the 94th edition of the nation’s largest and longest-running African American parade.
The annual back-to-school celebration is known for bringing a good time to Martin Luther King Drive in the name of Bud Billiken, a fictional character created by newspaper publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott in the 1920s.
This year’s parade, the third since it took a break for the COVID-19 pandemic, was led by 2023 Grammy Award-winning poet and Chicago native J. Ivy as its grand marshal. Last month, he told the Sun-Times it was the “ultimate honor.”
Phyllis Robinson, a resident who was born and raised in Bronzeville, said “life” has kept her away from the parade the last 40 years, but she returned because she decided it had been too long.
“I have memories from before kindergarten of not being able to see over the fence,” Robinson said. “So to come out and see how this parade and Bronzeville have changed, it’s just fun. It’s very cool.”
She and newfound friend and neighbor Patricia Yarborough talked about their time attending the celebration as kids. The two met when they ran into each other staking out spots near 37th Street, a few blocks ahead of the start of the parade, but the perfect place to watch all the dance groups and bands warm up in the shade.
“We found out we both lived nearby, so we were reminiscing about being little girls and being out here all these years,” Robinson said. “It brings out the kid in everyone.”
Robinson said she used to go with her grandmother until she was out of high school, making an early routine out of showing up to get spots at 6 a.m., otherwise “you couldn’t get close.”
Yarborough, who has spent the entirety of her 60 years in Bronzeville, said the parade has become a generational event for her family — and is something she hopes will continue to bring joy to future generations.
“I love it, everything about it,” Yarborough said. “[I attended] as a child, I’ve had my kids here, my grandkids, too, so now they’re bringing their children. … We just can’t let it die.”
Just a few blocks down on Oakwood Boulevard, Erin Joi Carmack was walking alongside the Made By Money dance company for the second year in a row as her daughter Riley danced with the group.
Not even the parade was immune to the current Barbie fever, as the troupe donned pink, ’80s-inspired outfits to match the remix of “Barbie Girl” as it blasted out of the vehicle leading them. Carmack said her daughter has been so into the theme, she’s already planning her October birthday party with a Barbie theme.
“They were so excited,” Carmack, an Englewood resident, said. “It’s Barbie everywhere, it’s a Barbie world. … The thing is clearly going to keep going throughout the year.”
Carmack said the group stayed at the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop on Friday night and took a bus to the parade site, though none of the kids could sleep because they were so excited. Despite the long day, she was equally as excited to see her daughter performing for the second year in a row.
“I attended as a youth, so to be an adult with my daughter in it is a surreal feeling,” Carmack said.
Another dance team, Dance 4 Life, sported black T-shirts with gold font adorned with the first names of the dancers who attend Carver Military Academy. Monique Thompson, 53, has been coaching Dance 4 Life for 13 years.
Thompson said she participated in the parade as part of her dance team at Chicago Vocational High School in the 1980s and hopes the dancers she now coaches gain a sense of unity and community pride from the event.
“I love dance myself and, of course, my season is over, so I like to give the dancers the same experience I had,” Thompson said.
Christopher Hicks, 49, attended the parade with his wife and three kids. Hicks said his eldest son, Asher, starts kindergarten soon and he thinks the parade is a great opportunity to get kids motivated for the upcoming school year.
“He’s not going to be my little boy forever,” Hicks said of his 5-year-old son starting CPS elementary school in a little over a week.
Dancers, politicians and other parade participants were cheered on by spectators in the crowd, who sang and danced to rap, house and hip-hop beats. Along the sides, people had lawn chairs and tents set up next to coolers filled with drinks and hot grills serving up ribs, burgers and corn.
Camille McCauley, 19, was selling snacks to parade attendees at a small table with her two sisters while watching over her two young nieces. She’s been coming to the parade for over a decade and has enjoyed seeing it grow as more community members have attended and participated in the event.
“It’s important to bring the kids out to let them be themselves and not let [the violence in] the streets take over,” McCauley said.
On the 80-degree day, McCauley said the snow cones were the most popular item at the stand.
Inesha Kelly, who’s attended the parade every year for the last decade, said as Bud Billiken approaches its centennial in the coming years, the spirit of the event has never diminished and community members continue to show up year after year.
“It’s a display of Black excellence,” Kelly said while holding her 1-year-old daughter, Nyashia Trailer. “It’s important to see the beauty and camaraderie of African American culture.”