Baha’is reunite with Bud Billiken Parade organizers
The Bud Billiken Parade, sponsored by the Chicago Defender Charities, is one the largest parades in the United States. The roots of this annual back-to-school event are closely tied to the Baha’i Faith. The parade was founded in Chicago in 1929 by the Defender Newspaper founder and publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott and editor David Kellum, both of whom became Baha’is in the 1930s.
They started the parade to promote unity and to celebrate education for the newsboys who sold their papers. Then and now, the education of children is foundational to the Baha’i community.
Syda Taylor, a Baha’i from Chicago, sees the participation of Baha’is in 2022’s parade as a kind of reunion with the current parade organizers. The paper and Defender Charities has been run by four generations of family, and the current President and CEO, Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, is Robert Abbott’s great-grandniece. “We are reconnecting family,” Taylor says. “We found each other again and Robert Abbott is that connection.”
“This relationship was reignited in 2016 and since then we have been finding touchpoints here and there. It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, the parade is next week, let’s jump on the bandwagon,’” Taylor says. “And the real story is the Baha’is are making a connection with people and a like-minded organization just as friends would in their daily lives.”
In years past the Chicago Baha’is had participated in the Bud Billiken parade by building floats and marching, but after 2000 involvement fell off, partly because the community sold the southside building where people met to build the floats.
The Wayfarer Foundation, a Baha’i-inspired nonprofit organization, supported this year’s participation in the parade. The solution was to have an electronic truck with digital signs replace a traditional float.
“We didn’t need to start from square one,” Taylor says. “We met and learned from community members. What were some of the challenges of years past? What worked? What didn’t? And there are all kinds of logistical things to consider, like insurance, so it was helpful to have other organizations involved.”
Taylor points out that often one connection leads to others. She attended the ceremony where the parade’s “Royal Court” was introduced. These six students aged 11-12, were selected from among those who submitted an academic essay and video for consideration to the Chicago Defenders Charities.
Each day for the week before the parade, the court visited a different place to learn about something. A tour of the Baha’i House of Worship was added to their itinerary. At the Temple Welcome Center, the students had a chance to learn about the Bud Billiken Parade founders and history by viewing the video David Kellum: a friend to every child.
“We are trying to keep the legacies of Robert Abbott and David Kellum alive. We are trying to remind people that these were Baha’is who started the parade and we are trying to remind people of the significance of the parade,” Taylor says.
A book for middle schoolers about Abbott’s life, Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade was written in 2019 by Susan Engle, a Baha’i from West Lafayette, Indiana. The Wayfarer Foundation arranged for her to have copies of the book to sign and give away to parade-goers.
Engle says that adults who already knew about Abbott were thrilled to see the book, and upon receiving a copy, “children hugged it and looked up with gratitude. Everyone valued having something to read.” Engle says that what she loved most about the day was the soundtrack it created for her. “The music, especially the drummers, were so inspiring.”
Michael O’Neal, who frequently visits Chicago for his work with Parent University, was one of the Baha’is who marched in the parade along with some colleagues and family members. O’Neal is from Savannah, Georgia, Robert Abbott’s birthplace.
“He’s an iconic figure here, and someone I have personally followed for 50 years since I first found out about him,” O’Neal says. “I’ve always been very interested in the Chicago Defender, the Bud Billiken Parade and all social impacts that it has had for almost a century now.”
O’Neal says he walked the entire 2-mile parade route. “It was wonderful interfacing with the crowd, and I actually, sometimes would kind of get distracted and start having conversations with the people,” he says.
“We were handing out things about oneness and unity so people were naturally interested in what our message was–not to understate the fact that we were a very diverse entry in the parade,” he says. “I’d venture to say there probably weren’t other entries as diverse as ours.”
“And after the parade, all of us getting a chance to go to the [Baha’i] Temple and reflect and pray together made it a very rich outing and experience for all of us,” O’Neal says. “And I think all of us feel a little closer to each other as a result of this opportunity.”
Featured image: Members of the Bud Billiken Royal Court visit the Baha’i House of Worship. Photo by Terence Crayton.