Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Pinkster in Chicago: Bud Billiken and the Mayor of Bronzeville, 1930-1945

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Pinkster in Chicago: Bud Billiken and the Mayor of Bronzeville, 1930-1945

Article excerpt

Bud Billiken Day began as a mid-summer diversion, a frolic. But within a decade Bud Billiken Day and Parade had become Chicago's African American New Year, Decoration Day, Fourth of July, and Mardi Gras all rolled into one. "It was the greatest parade Chicago has seen since Charles Lindberg," bragged the Chicago Defender, sponsor of the first Bud Billiken Day in mid-August 1930. (1)

Less than a year after the stock market crash, Robert Abbott, editor of Chicago's dominant but struggling African American newspaper, inaugurated a celebration that has endured for three quarters of a century. As the Bud Billiken Day Parade grew larger, longer, and grander, its ranks filled with thousands of recently arrived migrants who bore the heritage of southern Decoration and Emancipation Day celebrations that dated back to the end of the Civil War. Then in 1934 Bud Billiken Day merged with a second Defender-sponsored event, the election of the unofficial Mayor of Bronzeville, which recast features of African American Pinkster Day festivals from the 18th and 19th centuries.

In each case, what the Defender initiated, the African American residents of Chicago soon claimed as their own. Intended to boost circulation and reinforce the Defender's pre-Migration stature, the Bud Billiken Day Parade and the Mayor of Bronzeville Election became powerful and popular expressions of African American culture preserved and transformed by the Great Migration. During the 1930s, a time of devastating economic disaster, racial conflict, and political vulnerability, African Americans in Chicago rejoiced--they dressed to the nines as if to deny the distress, if only for a day--as their slave ancestors had. Together the parade and election feted black life on Chicago's South Side with marching bands, ice cream socials, picnics, music, and dance. Each celebration retained key elements of traditional African American rituals with roots that extended to the Pinkster Day elections and Decoration Day parades of the colonial and antebellum eras. (2)


The August 1930 Bud Billiken Day participants "put on the ritz." Young girls posed for the bathing beauty contest held that afternoon at the duck pond in the northern corner of Washington Park where they had marched with the "high stepping" cake-walk-like parade down South Parkway. Dorothy Mae Duke who lived at 4045 South Parkway, halfway down the parade route, won first prize in the contest, "a $35 blue automobile equipped with a windshield, rubber tires, a horn, and 1930 license plates," courtesy of the L. Fish Furniture Company. (3)

Sharply at 10 A.M., Saturday, 16 August 1930, Major N. Clark Smith, former bandmaster at Tuskegee Institute, and current music director of Wendell Philips High School, stepped out in front of the parade. Smith proudly took the procession of floats and cars, flanked by a flotilla of screaming motorcycles, down the boulevard. They marched the length of South Parkway, past elegant greystones and former synagogues recently transformed into Baptist churches, to the northern end of Washington Park. Between 51st and 55th Streets, the holiday throng played baseball, gobbled down gallons of free ice cream, and cheered the hundred bathing beauty contestants--despite a soaking mid-August rain.

The first Bud Billiken Day Parade mapped the boundary of the southern migrants' Chicago. The route of the parade, from 35th Street south to 55th Street, along Grand Boulevard/South Parkway and then into the northern and western quadrants of Washington Park, publicly marked and then challenged the boundaries of an ever-expanding African American South Side. (4) In 1930 African Americans lived only along the north and northwest boarders of Washington Park. In contrast, the eastern and southern half of Washington Park remained white down to Cottage Grove, the avenue that cordoned the park off from Hyde Park to the East, and along much of South Parkway from 55th Street to 61st Street. …

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