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What's In A Name? More Than A Parade (The Washington Post)

After 73 Years, Festival Honoring Mythical Bud Billiken Continues To Unite Chicago's 'Black Belt'
By Robert E. Pierre, The Washington Post
Monday, August 12, 2002

Chicago -- After spending the fall and winter bundled up, Chicago blows off a lot of steam in the summer with festivals to celebrate jazz, blues and country music, outdoor film fests and neighborhood gatherings devoted to ribs, books and the arts.

But one of the biggest parties is reserved for the second weekend of August, when hundreds of thousands gather in Chicago's historic "Black Belt" to honor Bud Billiken, a mythical hero who became a symbol of pride, happiness and hope for black residents during the bleak, segregated Great Depression. This past weekend didn't disappoint.

Politicians were propped up on shiny Corvettes, doing the presidential wave. Rap artists rhymed over way-too-much base. And dozens of marching, tumbling and dancing groups jiggled and gyrated to the delight of throngs of onlookers as they traveled a two-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the city's South Side.

"This is one of the largest crowds ever," said Pervis Spann, known as the Blues Man to those who have listened to his radio program on WVON and seen him in the 73-year-old parade for more than four decades. "This parade is consistent, and it's always good."

Annual estimates of crowd size range from 500,000 to more than 2 million. This year, organizers said there were about 50,000 participants, including a couple of politicians so hyped for the fall campaign that they went through the procession twice. A heck of a lot of hoopla over a guy who didn't even exist, right?

Historian Timuel Black said "escapism" nourished the city's fascination with Bud Billiken and the parade from the late 1920s. Back then, blacks felt the need to escape an overtly racist society, where jobs were scarce and much of Chicago was off-limits, particularly to the poor.

"Bud Billiken was plucked out of imagination," said Black, 82, who taught in Chicago public schools and at several colleges, including Wilbur Wright College. "Bud Billiken became a person. We created a worldwide relationship with young people around this idea. It became a part of our lives."

City lore has it that newspaperman Dave Kellum created the character Bud Billiken. His son, James Kellum, has been quoted as saying his father came up with the name by putting "Bud" with the name of a local beer, "Billiken."

The character became hugely popular in a comic strip, and the Chicago Defender, looking to pay tribute to the black newspaper's newsboys, decided to name the parade after Billiken.

Initially a ploy to sell more newspapers, the parade caught on. And it wasn't long before the parade was the place to be in black Chicago. South Siders and West Siders -- separated by geography and rivalry -- came together at the parade. Attendance by superstars was the norm -- Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Joe Louis, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday. Concerts were often performed afterward.

"If there were 100 families on the block, 99 of them went to the parade," said Richard Metz, 74, who has been going since he was a child. "The one family that didn't go was either sick or had someone in the family dying. You either went or people would tell you what you missed."

This year, Metz and his wife, Cynthia, took along four of their 10 grandchildren, who live in the suburbs and were making their first appearance at the parade. Because times have changed, Metz said, the current parade -- though larger than ever -- can't mean as much to today's youngsters because there are so many other diversions. In his youth, few black people owned a television, and going to a movie was a big deal that required you to get dressed up -- things that would be foreign to many today.

The other big difference is the parade's commercialism. Although there were always businesses that sponsored floats in the parade, Metz said, they were mostly stores in the community, the local utility or an insurance company. But at Saturday's parade, there was a major presence by companies such as McDonald's (with several floats and banners), Lawry's, Burger King, Shell and Quaker Oats.

And parade organizers said they hoped to raise about $100,000 in college scholarships for city residents.

Some things haven't changed, however. Before the festivities, participants were primping and going over their routines. Vendors and some families set up barbecue grills and iced tons of soda, water and beer for the day-long party. Hot dogs in some places were going for $1, nachos for $2 or $3, depending on the toppings, and bottles of water for as little as 50 cents because there was so much competition for customers.

It led to exchanges such as this one between a man selling cans of beer from a rolling ice chest and a young woman who caught his eye:

"Where's your man, girl?" the man asked, smiling when she said he was at home. "Can I have your number?"

"Can I have a beer?" the woman responded.

"Now you trying to cut in on my profit," the man said.

"You trying to cut in on her man, so what's the difference?" responded one of the woman's friends.

He didn't get the number. She didn't get the beer.

Even so, both left smiling. Having a good time, hanging out with family and friends -- that's what the day is about, said Tommy Moore, 69, who, with several of his grandchildren, watched as the parade rolled by. This was his fourth parade since moving to Chicago from Las Vegas to be near his brood.

"It's about family," he said as he slurped a cup of flavored ice.

The parade has typically been a reminder to children that the new school year is coming, but that was the furthest thing from the minds of most children as they played in the streets. Asked whether he was ready for school, Moore's grandson Kenneth, 8, shook his head no.

Another grandchild saddled up to Moore. "Grandpa, can I have some money?"

Like many others on this day, he reached in his pocket and forked some over.

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