Jolyn Robichaux was a 43-year-old widow with two young children when her husband Joseph, chairman of Baldwin Ice Cream, died suddenly of leukemia in 1971.
She decided to continue running the South Side company, which until then had a strong presence only in mom-and-pop stores and ice cream parlors in African-American neighborhoods.
Mrs. Robichaux improved deliveries and accounting. She bought new uniforms for drivers and rewarded them for performance. Sales increased. Eventually, she broke the freezer barrier — getting Baldwin Ice Cream into big supermarkets and being distributed in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi and Tennessee. Baldwin, at 4825 S. Indiana, also expanded to O’Hare Airport.
In 1985, Mrs. Robichaux received a “National Minority Entrepreneur of the Year” award from Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Mrs. Robichaux, 88, died Monday of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Lewisville, Texas, where she’d moved to be near her children.
After she sold the company in 1992 to Eric Johnson — whose father George Johnson founded Johnson Products Co., the hair care and cosmetics business — she spent part of her 60s living in France, visiting the Louvre and European opera houses and socializing with counts and countesses.
Her background was in teaching, not business. But when she walked into a room, impeccably groomed and styled, she charmed people.
“I’m an oddity,” Mrs. Robichaux once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The men share more information with me about the industry than they would with a man.”
“My husband weighed almost 300 pounds, and when he said do something, everybody did it!” she said in a 1975 Ebony magazine interview. “But I figured that I had to run it a little differently.”
She’d learned the art of negotiation in her downstate hometown of Cairo, watching her dentist father Edward Howard treat patients while negotiating the color line. Cairo, at the southern tip of Illinois, had a history of racial tension and lynchings.
Because Howard rented his office, “The white patients could come in the front door, and he had to come in the back,” Mrs. Robichaux’s daughter Sheila Glaze said.
Young Jolyn went on to study for two years at Fisk University but left school and moved north for work to ease the financial burden on her mother after her father died. Later, she earned a degree from what would become Chicago State University.
In Chicago, she was hired by a dentist friend of her father. Through him, she met Mary McLeod Bethune, an influential educator, civil rights activist and Chicago Defender columnist who had the ear of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt and “was truly an inspiration,” Glaze said, with “her ability to command respect and to talk about how to negotiate race issues tactfully.”
Mrs. Robichaux wound up landing a job with the National Labor Relations Board.
At a nightclub one evening, she met New Orleans native Joseph Robichaux.
“He knew she was the one,” their daughter said. “She was sort of spunky, and she was just the life of the party.”
In 1952, they were married by the Rev. Bernard J. Sheil, who founded the Catholic Youth Organization and named Mrs. Robichaux to an archdiocesan committee on race relations. They named their first child — Sheila — in his honor. They raised her and their son Joseph in Chatham. One of their neighbors was gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who sometimes babysat. Mrs. Robichaux did product demonstrations for Betty Crocker and was said to be the first African-American to do so.
Her husband, a protege of Mayor Richard J. Daley, served as 21st Ward Democratic committeeman, worked at Wanzer Dairy and was an accomplished athletics coach and member of the Illinois Athletic Commission. When he died, he was helping to prepare the U.S. women’s track team for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Joseph Robichaux also was a Cook County jury commissioner, and his widow wanted to serve the remainder of his term.
But other Democratic loyalists were trying to muscle her aside, she once told a Toastmasters interviewer, according to a transcript. “I went to the weekly council meeting in a black suit, black veil that covered my shoulders,” she said, and Daley “could also see all the ward committeemen and aldermen give me their condolences.”
The next day, she said, the mayor told her she had the job.
After Mrs. Robichaux became president of Baldwin Ice Cream, women moved into many executive positions. Her sister Charlotte Logan was vice president. Their mother Margaret Howard Braddix served as financial manager, and Mrs. Robichaux’s niece Leslye Logan was a sales manager and account executive.
Logan said one of her aunt’s few business disappointments was a Southern-inspired ice-cream flavor that never took off: black-eyed pea ice cream.
Mrs. Robichaux is also survived by a granddaughter. She didn’t want a service, according to her daughter, who said some of her ashes will be placed at Queen of Heaven Cemetery mausoleum in Hillside, and some will be scattered in the River Seine in her beloved Paris.