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History Behind First African American to Lead American Red Cross

The legacy of Jerome H. Holland, African American educator, businessman, author, civil rights proponent, diplomat and 1985 Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, lives on through his mission of helping to provide the safest blood possible to those in need. The American Red Cross Jerome H. Holland Laboratory for the Biomedical Sciences is named in his honor.

Holland was the driving force behind the current phase of biomedical research and development at the Red Cross; the national center for biomedical research and development. A true visionary, Holland recognized the importance of blood research and the benefits it could bring to human health. The Holland Lab continues his legacy today through the American Red Cross Research and Development Program.

Holland was born in Auburn, New York, one of 13 children born to Robert and Viola Bagby Holland. He led the American Red Cross Board of Governors as its chairman from 1979 until his death in 1985.

Jerome Holland is briefed by a Red Cross Worker following a 1979 tornado that struck Wichita Falls, Texas.

As the only one of his siblings to attend college, Holland entered Cornell University in 1935 where he excelled in academics and on the football field. He was named an All-American end in 1937 and 1938 at a time when the nation was heavily segregated and very few Black players were welcome in college athletics. In 1965, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame. He earned his doctorate in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.

With his Ph.D. in hand, Holland embarked on a 30-year career as an educator and administrator. From 1953 to 1959 he served as president of Delaware State College (now Delaware State University); from 1960 to 1970 he served as president at Hampton Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University). Both schools are among the leading historically black institutions of higher learning in the United States, also known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Holland’s first term on the Red Cross Board of Governors began in 1964 and ended in 1970 when he was appointed United States ambassador to Sweden. Upon his return to the United States, Holland served on the boards of directors of many major U.S. corporations, including AT&T, Chrysler, General Foods, Federated Department Stores, Manufacturers Trust and Union Carbide. In 1972 he became the first African American to serve on the board of the New York Stock Exchange; in 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Holland as chairman of the Red Cross Board of Governors.

In addition to consolidating Red Cross biomedical research into the Holland Lab, Holland began programs to raise disaster relief funds for the organization and was instrumental in building the international services department within the American Red Cross. Recognizing that the American Red Cross had a major role to play on the world stage, he convinced the Board of Governors to create a committee on international services, and was especially effective in building close ties with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world.

On February 23, the Holland Lab will celebrate its 25th anniversary.