Bahá’ís carry out integral role in Chicago’s annual Bud Billiken celebration

September 15, 2023
Bahá’ís carry out integral role in Chicago’s annual Bud Billiken celebration

Bahá’ís have a long history of involvement in one of the largest annual parades in the United States: the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, an event for back-to-school season on Chicago’s South Side since 1929. 

Following decades of tradition, the day brought together many African Americans and friends from throughout the city with music from marching bands and local DJs, neighbors grilling barbeque for each other, and lively dancing by various performance groups.

Community members walking in the Bud Billiken parade.

Organized nearly a century ago by the Black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper, the celebration started as an outgrowth of the Bud Billiken Club, founded to promote education and community involvement among young African Americans. The paper’s publisher, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, and editor, David Kellum, embraced the Bahá’í Faith in the 1930s.

“It’s important for Bahá’ís to take part in this parade to uplift the history of Robert Abbott and David Kellum,” says Syda Taylor, executive director of Organic Oneness, a nonprofit organization that helped organize Bahá’í participation. “We need to understand the significance of why it was started and stay as closely connected as possible.”

Planning for the local Bahá’í community’s participation took about five months, and volunteers signed up as early as March. Organic Oneness conducted several efforts to assemble plans and outreach materials in advance, and prepare activity and learning spaces during and after the parade. 

These tasks included organizing and meeting with community groups participating in the parade, meeting with Bahá’ís, raising funds, and designing T-shirts and marketing materials.

Baha’i community members at the Baha’i Faith tent during the Bud Billiken post-parade picnic.

At the festive post-parade picnic, volunteers at a tent handed out the book Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade, written by Susan Engle and illustrated by Luthando Mazibuko, and produced by the Bahá’í Publishing Trust. “The Bahá’í tent was a beautiful interaction,” says Ron Browne, a Bahá’í who lives on Chicago’s South Side. “We were giving away copies of the book, and it helped us share the history and connection of the history [of the parade] and the Bahá’í Faith.”

The Chicago Bahá’í community has participated in the parade in different ways throughout the years. In the late 1990s–2000s, for example, community members hand-decorated a float and rode it along the parade route on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, with students in the arts-centered Bahá’í Youth Workshop program performing a step dance nearby. 

“I went a lot in the early 2000s and recently in the past three years. Over the years, it’s gotten bigger and there have been more additions into the parade,” Browne says. “There is a rich history of Bahá’í involvement in this parade. Bahá’ís were very much involved in the South Side of Chicago in the early part of the 20th century.”

This year, two local Bahá’ís shared a brief history and background of the Faith with television news crews. About 20 Bahá’ís walked the two-mile parade route holding a sign that read, “Blackness, like the pupil of the eye, shines the light!” 

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in a passage quoted in The Advent of Divine Justice, said Bahá’u’lláh first compared Black people to the pupil of the eye: “In this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the spirit shineth forth.”

The Bud Billiken parade is meant to celebrate African Americans in Chicago, so it was important for Bahá’í representation in the parade to emphasize the significance of racial unity and equality as described in the Bahá’í writings. “It’s the second largest parade in the nation and it’s centered on the Black community,” says Taylor. 

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