Bud Billiken: Unity in Diversity

Bud Billiken: Unity in Diversity

In 1905, Robert S. Abbott founded The Chicago Defender, which became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, came to be known as “America’s Black Newspaper” and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent.

Abbott met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, in 1912, when he was covering a talk of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during his stay in Chicago during his journeys in the West. Abbott was listed as a frequenter of Bahá’í events in Chicago with his wife in 1924. The Defender published several articles about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit.

While dining at a Chinese restaurant Abbott noticed a Billiken. a Billiken is a charm doll created by an American art teacher and illustrator, Florence Pretz of Kansas City, Missouri, who is said to have seen the mysterious figure in a dream. Abbott created the fictional character of Bud Billiken, for a new youth section of the newspaper. During the Great Depression, Abbott featured the Bud Billiken character in his newspaper as a symbol of pride, happiness and hope for black residents. The character gained prominence in a comic strip and the Chicago Defender newspaper. Although the character was created in 1923, the parade did not begin until 1929, when David Kellum who later became a Baha’i, initiated it as a celebration of the “unity in diversity for the children of Chicago.” Unity is the pivot around which all the teachings of the Baha’i Faith revolve. Since the inception the Bud Billiken Parade has since grown to become a locally televised event and the second largest parade in the nation.

Bud Billiken: Unity in Diversity
David Kellum

Numerous high-profile celebrities and dignitaries have attended the parade over the years, including U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Michael Jordan, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Adelaide Hall, Oprah Winfrey, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, James Brown, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Chaka Khan and Billie Holiday. Truman rode alongside John H. Sengstacke, who was Abbott’s nephew and took over the Chicago Defender in 1948, and Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1956 Parade. Recent parades have featured popular musical acts as concert performers at the post-parade picnic. In 2006, approximately 26 million people saw the parade, including 25 million television viewers and 1.2 million attendees. The 2006 parade included 74,000 participants and 160 floats and vehicles. The 2008 parade was dedicated to actor and comedian Bernie Mac (star of The Bernie Mac Show) and a native of Chicago; he died an hour before the start of the parade. The 2020 parade, Marking the 91st year of the parade saw their first-ever cancellation caused by COVID-19 pandemic.

After searching through several religious communities for an atmosphere free of race prejudice, even among “light skinned” African-Americans, Abbott officially joined the Bahá’í Faith in 1934 because of its freedom from such prejudice.