Sunday, September 4, 2016

V 6 N. 67 Remembering a National Championship Road Race and Grand Parade

By Tom Coyne and Paul O’Shea
The annual Bud Billiken Parade held each August in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago is the oldest and largest African American parade in the United States.
Bud Billiken was the brainchild of Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, arguably the best-known African American newspaper in America.  Surprisingly, however, Bud’s roots are Chinese, not African American, for the billiken was a Chinese symbol of a protector of children.  Abbott incorporated the symbol in 1923 by introducing the character, “Bud” Billiken, into a children’s section of the Defender as a way to encourage, motivate and inspire young African Americans.  An editor of the newspaper, David Kellum, came up with the idea of a parade in 1929 and history was made.

Pres. Harry Truman  ,  middle unk, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daly

The Man
Although today’s Bud Billiken Parade is massive, like all ventures it started small and grew.  Grand Marshalls went from local celebrities to athletes to show people to politicians to Presidents.  Through the years special events were created to capture interest and hold attention.

In the 1950s one innovation was hosting a national championship road race, scheduled in all likelihood to showcase the considerable talents of African American runner Lou White.  White was the third place finisher in the 1949 Boston Marathon in 2:36:48.  He had previously run for the fabled New York Pioneer Club and the Boston Athletic Association and was one of the founders of the New York Road Runners Club.  In l984 he was inducted into the Road Runners Club of America Hall of Fame.
Lou White finishing third at Boston 1949

A frequent long distance champion in the Metro New York area, White was five feet, five inches tall, bespectacled, an outgoing and friendly individual.  In those bygone days distance runners didn’t run for the money--if ever there was an amateur runner, White was one.
White, who died in 1990 at the age of 82, lived an enterprising life.  Gary Corbitt, son of the legendary marathoner Ted Corbitt, called him a “Renaissance Sportsman.”  White studied journalism at New York University but dropped out because of the Depression.  Working at odd jobs he was a parks recreation director, hospital emergency room employee and helped out at the Newport Jazz Festival.  He took third place in a national photo competition, and published fiction and non-fiction.  Athletically, he played handball, racquetball and was a speed skating champion.  
But it was on the roads where Lou White excelled.  Corbitt believes he “may have been the fastest black marathoner” up to the time of his Boston finish.

In 1951, Tom Coyne and Paul O’Shea were non-substance addicted distance runners.  As teammates they had run on the St. Ignatius High School cross country and track teams during the school year and in the summer, in the not inconsiderable number of road races put on by the AAU and the University of Chicago Track Club among others.  “As distance runners in the 50s, it can’t be said we were pitied,” Tom remembers.  “We were just ignored.  Each April the Boston Marathon got a fair amount of attention, but for the rest of the year distance running was a sub-culture.”
The Billiken special event was the National AAU 15 kilometer championship. In 1950, after encouraging seasons of cross country and track at St. Ignatius, Paul happened across a story about the prospective race in the sports section of the Chicago Tribune. Paul had never run beyond three or four miles, and was naively seduced by the distance. In Tom’s case, after hearing about the race from Paul, memory has it that he didn’t really understand just how far 15 kilometers actually were. Ignorance was bliss for Tom because, for him, it turned out to be a high point in his running history.

Paul finished eleventh in 1950 in 64:21, more than two miles behind White’s first Billiken victory. He had just completed his freshman year.  A year later, as a rising senior Tom joined him and finished sixth in 54:20, while Paul was thirteenth in 60:13.  What is astonishing today is to remember how small the fields were more than sixty years ago.  In the l950 race, 16 started, 16 finished.  A year later 26 of 29 completed the 9.3 miles.
Paul first met Tom in l949, after the incoming freshman failed to impress the St. Ignatius High School football coaches.  A quick “You’re Fired” by football management that September put paid to his hope of playing for Notre Dame or even a nearby junior college. But he thought he could run so he hitched a ride on the back of a group of runners. Tom and his varsity co-leader Ray Mayer were cruising around the perimeter of the football field, more finely powdered dirt than fairway smooth.  Tom and Ray were juniors and had a rapidly expanding list of individual and team championships on their resumes.  
In the Fifties the Billiken Parade usually started around 31st Street and Michigan Avenue and ended in Washington Park.  The race itself began in Jackson Park and continued south to 56th and South Park Street, a mercifully flat course.  The weather was pleasant, slightly warm but not too bad.  The runners were mostly veterans of the local distance running community.  White was the star attraction and “it was a good thing we all got the opportunity to see and meet him at the start of the race because he didn’t hang around long,” Tom recalls.
Lou White had an unusual stride, very short and very even.  Perhaps because of his diminutive stature it was accentuated, but he seemed to glide along with not a lot of arm motion.  We locals got to see what a “real” distance runner looked like (in the short time we could keep him in view).
Thinking back now we realize we didn’t know how good we had it. As distance runners we weren’t pioneers.  Distance running had been part of the United States athletic scene long before the Native Americans out West started chasing the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s John Colter.  But we were unique; we were doing something that is timeless in athletic history and we few souls were carrying on a great tradition.  We just didn’t think in such noble terms.  The race fields were small but the respect we had for each other was sincere.  We were doing something the average person couldn’t or wouldn’t do, running a very long way without stopping.  It doesn’t sound like much but those who do it know what it takes to be able to do it.
In the 1950s we weren’t chauvinistic (at least not at the local level; we couldn’t speak for Jock Semple).  There weren’t any or many women running in our distance races then but I’m sure they would not have been excluded.  It was just that their day was yet to come,” Tom points out.
How long the Bud Billiken Day races went on we couldn’t say.  There were, at least, several more. The parades, of course, continued and grew immensely, so it is easy to see why side attractions like road races were no longer needed.

But they did take place and are part of Chicago distance running history, not to mention being very fond memories for a grateful pair of high school would-be Whites.

For more on Lou White by Gary Corbitt see: Lou White from Track and Field News Forum

The idea for this story came from several clippings about the 1951 National 15Km Championship held in Chicago that Paul O'Shea sent me this summer.  I noticed in the results that Tom Coyne and Paul, two of our regular readers and contributors, had both run in the race that year.  So I asked Paul if he would write a story about the event, the atmosphere, etc.  I had no idea the race was connected  to the "Bud" Billiken Parade or even the significance of that event.  Thanks so much to Tom and Paul for responding so quickly.
Here are Paul and Tom (front row left) along with the St. Ignatius HS
Cross Country team several years ago.   If you click on the photo you'll get an enlarged view of
the two old teammates.


In 1950 Lou White won the race in 50:32.  In 1951 he won in 49:51 on a course that was 90 yards shorter.

Well, we remembered to put in our own times.  After all, who was this guy, Lou White, anyway!  Tom Coyne

No comments:

V 9 N. 9 The Peerless Four by Victoria Patterson, a book review

The Peerless Four a novel by Victoria Patterson Counterpoint Berkeley, CA 2013  212 pages The Peerless Four   is a fictiona...