If you are from the Chicagoland area the name “Bud Billiken” is synonymous with the end of the summer and “The Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic” not only rings in the new school year, but it is considered to be the largest annual African American Parade in the United States.
What is often overlooked by the history books is that the name “Bud Billiken” was the pen name of an LGBTQ writer named Willard Motley. Motley grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on the south side of Chicago at a time when very few African American family's resided in the neighborhood. The Chicago Defender, the producer of “The Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic”, hired and published Motely’s fiction essays when he was just 13 years old.
In 1947, Motley’s first book “Knock on Any Door” was published. The book is about Nick Romano, who was an altar boy at twelve, and who died in the electric chair at twenty-one. In the few violent years between, he packed a long lifetime of dreams, frustration, passion, and crime. Nick’s character hunts Madison street and is often picked up by gay men (referred to as phonies in the book) for sex work. Motely’s follow up to “Knock on Any Door” was “Let No Man Write My Epitaph” was critically acclaimed and was later made into a feature film by Columbia Pictures. The film featured Ella Fitzgerald and most of the soundtrack was performed by the legendary singer.
Motley died in Mexico City at the age of 55. While his life was short Motley’s legacy will endure for decades to come. His life’s work not only had a positive impact on the African American community but the LGBTQ+ community as well.
For more information on Willard Motley, the bulk of his archives can be found at Northern Illinois University.