A poem about Albion by Robert Holland, Jr. changes history

Albion’s segregated ice cream parlor was immortalized in a poem by native son Robert Holland, Jr.

Black History Month Series 2015: Part 3


Contributing Writer

©The Recorder February 2015

The community has been hearing a lot about Albion’s Holland family recently.

Ruth Holland Scott, a former child of Albion who has achieved several African-American “firsts,” was the keynote speaker at the 2015 Martin Luther King convocation. At that event, Scott was flanked onstage by a portrait of her late father, Robert Holland Sr., who notably spearheaded the successful effort to de-segregate Albion’s schools in 1953. Holland Park – a well-publicized transformation initiative of which is currently being spearheaded by Lenn Reid – was named after him in acknowledgement of those efforts.

In 1995, another piece of Albion’s black history gained notoriety thanks to the efforts of Ruth’s brother, Robert Holland Jr. By then an accomplished business turn-around consultant, Bob became the first person not named Ben or Jerry to be named president/CEO of the Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. ice cream company. Holland, a product of the segregated Albion school district – was paid an annual salary of $250,000 in his new position.

Robert Holland Jr. was an African American businessman who served as the first black Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream manufacturer.

The new Ben & Jerry’s executive had, as a four-year-old, seen a cross burned on the front lawn after his family moved into a “white” section of Albion east of Superior Street; his sister Ruth recalls the angry neighbors standing around “shaking their fists” at the Hollands. At age eight, Bob became “man of the house,” walking to pay their bills, when his father was stricken with tuberculosis. After the school desegregation effort, his dad was in and out of the Battle Creek Sanatorium, eventually had a lung removed; his health then improved enough that he could serve on Albion’s City Council.

In his 20s, Holland had joined blue-chip management consultants McKinsey & Co. and gone on to become the firm’s first African-American partner. With his progressive social values, he was expected to fit right into Ben & Jerry’s. And, at the time, it made him the first African American to head a major corporation.

The company, known for its down-home, folksy image, launched the search that led to Holland’s appointment with a “Yo, I’m Your CEO” essay contest on why the participant wanted to head the company; about 20,000 people entered. The company, in fact, hired an executive search firm to supplement the contest, and it was the firm that found the Albion native.

On the train heading to Boston to accept the position with the company, Holland composed a poem entitled “Time, Values and Ice Cream” in lieu of an essay. The piece included a reference to the irony of him not being able to eat ice cream as a little boy in a segregated parlor in Albion.

On the train heading to Boston to accept the position with the company, Holland composed a poem entitled “Time, Values and Ice Cream” in lieu of an essay. The piece included a reference to the irony of him not being able to eat ice cream as a little boy in a segregated parlor in Albion.

“I decided to write it for two reasons,” Holland said in a recent phone interview from his home in White Plains, NY. “One, because it was reality, and you have to remember it in order for it not to come back. And secondly, I knew it [the poem] would last longer than the event itself.”

The “Sullivan’s” it immortalized was once a popular hangout in Albion during the 1950s and 1960s, an ice cream parlor at the southeast corner of Superior and Erie streets.

This photo of “Sullivan’s” Rainbow Dairy Bar was taken in May, 1956. (Courtesy of Frank Passic)

Albion historian, Frank Passic, has written in a Morning Star article that it was actually named the Rainbow Dairy Bar, but was known as Sullivan’s because it served “the Sullivan brand of ice cream made at the prominent dairy in Battle Creek which owned it in the 1930s and 1940s.”

According to life-long Albion resident Barbara Bradford Gladney, what Bob Holland wrote in his poem about Sullivan’s was true: the ice cream parlor was segregated. Blacks could come in and order ice cream, but they were not allowed to eat it in the parlor – they had to take it outside.

Holland recalls having his recollection of a segregated Sullivan’s challenged after the poem became publicized, by a woman who wrote to Ben & Jerry’s claiming that had not been the case. At the time, Holland says he reached out to Sue Marcos, a former classmate, who confirms that his memory of blacks not being allowed to sit on the stools at Sullivan’s was correct.

Conceding that it was difficult to replace the company’s founders, Holland stepped down in 1997 after 20 months at Ben & Jerry’s. He is now mostly retired, serving on several boards and doing some consulting work.

“Although I haven’t visited Albion in almost thirty years,” Holland explains, “I have a memory from when I was a little boy, when a Mrs. Johnson – who lived near Albion St. – would call my mother and ask her to have Bobby come over and pick up a homemade deep-dish blueberry pie. She would hand me the pie and a couple of coins, and lean over to me and say ‘Remember, Bobby, we’re counting on you [as a kid who’s going to lead us out of this mess].’ And that’s what I’ve always tried to do.”


Time, Values and Ice Cream

By Robert Holland Jr.

Born before the baby boom as war drums raged cross distant waters — way

beyond my family’s lore since our 1600s coming to this far off

land called America.

T’was a simple time, as I grew tall.

Shucks! Uncle Sam really wanted you (so the poster said) — pride

in work, parades and proms, company picnics ‘tween eve’ns spent

with “Suspense,” “The Shadow,” and everybody’s “Our Miss Brooks.”

Good ole days in the summertime, indeed! . . . in America.

Yet, some nostalgia stayed ‘yond one’s grasp,

like Sullivans,

the ice cream place on Main — swivel stools, cozy booths, and

sweet, sweet smells with no sitting place for all of some of us.

Could only dream such humble pleasure. Sometimes, dear ‘Merica,

of thee I simply hum.

Much, so much has changed in 20 springs. Sputnik

no longer beeps so loud;

Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and contentions in Chicago . . .

come and gone . . .

All that noise almost drowning out “One small step for a man . . .”

and “. . . Willie, time to say good-by to baseball.”

Confusing place, this melodious mix,

called America.

Now I sit by eyeing distant twilight,

Engineer and MBA,

smiling wide on M.L.K.’s day,

CEO of Cherry Garcia and Peace Pops’ fountain —

having not forgotten the forbidden seats of Sullivan’s,

with miles to go before we sleep . . .

and time left yet to get there.

Only in America!

This story is reprinted with permission from The Recorder.
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Michelle Mueller

Michelle Mueller

Michelle is the author of the book Mr. Bonner: The Story of a Mentoring Journey, which was released in 2019.   She has written for The Recorder, the Albion College Io Triumphe magazine, and she is an enthusiastic scrapbooker in her spare time.  See more articles by Michelle Mueller here: www.albionmich.net/writer-mueller/

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