Sunday, 10 February 2013


It has been very sad to read about the increasing violence amongst young people, in Chicago (and around the U.S.). Innocent victims, such as 15-year-old, Hadiya Pendleton, who recently performed at President Obama’s Inauguration, are being gunned down, as though a human life were a commodity. I can only pray that something can, and will, be done about it, very soon; and Chicago youths will be given new outlets for focusing their energy and frustrations.

Of course, some of these outlets have, and do, exist. One such organization is the Bud Billiken Club. Founded by The Chicago Defender newspaper founder, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, and its Executive Editor, Lucius Harper, in 1923.  

Robert S. Abbott was born in 1868, in St. Simons Island (SSI), Georgia, where my family spends a lot of our leisure time. The Abbott Family name is very prevalent on the Island. Robert's relative, Viola Abbott, is a friend of my mother's, and lives on the SSI property that once belonged to Georgia's founder, James Oglethorpe. Robert's parents were former slaves, and his father, Thomas Abbott, died when he was very young. His mother, who happened to speak German, subsequently met and married a mixed-race German man, John Sengstacke, who had come to Georgia, from Germany.  Robert took John's surname as part of his name. After Robert became successful, he returned to St. Simons Island, during the 1930s, and erected a memorial obelisk in honor of his father and two aunts, on the grounds of Fort Frederica (built by James Oglethorpe in the 18th century to defend against Spanish raids).  

Robert S. Abbott

James Oglethorpe

Abbott Memorial, Fort Frederica, St. Simons Island, Georgia

Robert studied printing at Hampton University, in the early 1890s, and received a Law Degree, a few years later, from Kent College of Law, in Chicago. However, due to the racial prejudices against him, he was unable to practice; despite attempts to open law offices in Gary, Indiana, Topeka, Kansas and Chicago, Illinois. 

In 1905, he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, with an initial investment of $25. The paper quickly became the most widely-circulated, Black newspaper in the country, and came to be known as "America's Black Newspaper." Its success made Robert one of the first, self-made millionaires of African-American descent. The Defender's circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. A key distribution network for the newspaper was created by the African-American railroad porters.

One of the reasons that The Chicago Defender was so popular was because it openly spoke out about African-American’s civil rights. Robert created a list of nine goals that constituted The Defender′s Mission:
1.   American race prejudice must be destroyed
2.   The opening up of all trade unions to Blacks as well as Whites.
3.   Representation in the President's Cabinet
4.   Engineers, firemen, and conductors on all American railroads, and all jobs in government.
5.   Representation in all departments of the police forces over the entire United States
6.   Government schools open to all American citizens in preference to foreigners
7.   Motormen and conductors on surface, elevated and motor bus lines throughout America
8.   Federal legislation to abolish lynching.
9.   Full enfranchisement of all American citizens.

Robert also wrote a lot about how much better it was for African-Americans to live up North.  He encouraged many to move from the South - thus becoming one of the pioneers of "The Great Migration" movement, when more than one million African-Americans migrated between 1910 and 1925; and another five million until 1970.

African-American Family migrating North

In 1919, Illinois Governor, Frank Lowden, appointed Robert to the Chicago Commission on Race Relations. The Commission would go on to publish the book, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot .

In 1923, Robert, and The Defender Executive Editor, Lucius Harper, decided to form The Bud Billiken Club, as part of the paper’s children’s page, The Defender Junior, to encourage readership, appropriate conduct, and community involvement Chicago’s African-American youth.  The naming of the club has varied histories that range from Chinese mythology to a woman creating the figure in 1908.  However, in 1923 an eleven-year-old boy, named Willard Motley, submitted a drawing to The Defender of a pudgy and cheerful boy, which Robert subsequently named the "new Billikin."  Abbott placed Willard’s drawing on The Defender Junior’s page. Known as “the first Billiken,” Willard continued to pen drawings for The Defender Junior for the next seven years; and then became a novelist.

Willard Motley

The Rules of The Bud Billiken Club guided young people to take pride in their race and to strive towards what was then termed, “middle class respectability.” It was also meant as a way to give underprivileged children a creative outlet and a chance to shine in the limelight. Over the years, Bud Billiken became the mascot not only for the children’s page, but for the whole newspaper. Robert organized dozens of Bud Billiken Clubs, nationwide, for children who pledged to read The Defender.

Initially, Robert, and another Defender Editor, David Kellum, created a day for the members of the Bud Billiken Club, and the young people who sold the newspapers, to be an annual November event. However, by 1929, the day of fun had morphed into a summer-time celebration and parade, dubbed in 1929 as the Bud Billiken Day Parade. 

David Kellum

Children belonging to the Bud Billiken Club were taught that they should be honest and trustworthy, obey their parents and respect one another. A cartoon character, Bud Billiken, taught them how. Through a pen-pal program with children in Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East, The Bud Billiken Club helped chip away at the wall of segregation that had separated these children.
The Bud Billiken Day Parade is now the second-largest parade in United States, and draws over a million viewers each year.  The event, held on the second Saturday in August, has attracted more than 50 million children and their families throughout the United States for a day of community and celebration of African-American togetherness.

1929 Bud Billiken Day Parade

1948 Bud Billiken Day Parade

2012 Bud Billiken Day Parade

Among the many celebrities to march over the years are: Muhammad Ali, Lena Horne, Michael Jordan, L.L. Cool J, Oprah Winfrey, Boxer Joe Lewis, Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and, of course, then-Senator Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, Chicagoan residents.

Muhammad Ali in Bud Billiken Day Parade

Joe Lewis in Bud Billiken Day Parade

President Harry S. Truman,  John H. Sengstacke and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago in the 1956 Bud Billiken Day Parade

The Obamas in The Bud Billiken Parade

The Bud Billiken Club sponsors scholarships, and assists youth with job training, internships, and college recruitment. They regularly feature outstanding Chicago youth through their volunteer work and essay contests. The Club also organizes, in conjunction with Chicago Defender Charities, school supply giveaways, reduced rates on computers and Internet service, and even things such as prom dress donations. There is also focus on creating safe communities through conflict resolution and promoting education.

Each year there is a Bud Billiken Contest to determine the Parade’s King, Queen and Royal Court. The winners are determined, based on the amount of Chicago Defender subscriptions sold and a written and oral essay. The contest is open to children aged eight to eleven; and titles include King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Lord, and Lady. Though all are awarded, the King and Queen receive the grand prize of a trip to Disney World. The winners are announced each year at the Bud Billiken Day Parade and participate in “a week of fun,” including riding on a float in the parade and visiting various places around the city as members of the Royal Court.

Today, the Bud Billiken Club is also known as Bud Billiken Youth. Eighty-four years later, the organization has grown into a year-round program that supports youth with financial and academic help. They also continue to shine the light on outstanding young people that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Robert S. Abbott died of Bright’s diseasein 1940, in Chicago. His home, the Robert S. Abbott House, became a National Historic Landmark.

Robert S. Abbott House

Robert’s will left the newspaper in the control of his nephew, John Henry Sengstacke, who passed away in 1997. John worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to welcome African-American reporters in The White House, and to create jobs, for African-Americans, in the United States Postal Service. One of his biggest objectives was to desegregate the United States Armed Forces. Ultimately, President Harry Truman named John to the commission he formed to integrate the military. John also established the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which was an endeavor to unify and strengthen African-American owned papers. He served seven terms as president of the association. The Chicago Defender still publishes weekly.

John Sengstacke

Robert S. Abbott established a legacy for African-American youth, which I hope will create even more, as well as even stronger, legacies and positive outlets for them.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bud Billiken Club, Bud Billiken Parade, Google Images

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