Robert Lee Holland said he would not talk to a dog the way his ex-boss spoke to him.
"I was called Chicken Little, Watermelon Man, Chicken George and Spareribs Kid," Holland testified on the first day of his discrimination case against First Virginia Banks Inc. and his former supervisor, Donald D. Brennan. " . . . I felt they were putting me down all the time, as an individual, as a black man."
Holland, 46, who lives in Woodbridge, alleged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria yesterday that Brennan humiliated him for several months, then forced him to resign his $7.50-an-hour job as a maintenance man -- all because he is black.
Holland, a 20-year Army veteran, added that the harassment was not limited to offensive names. Brennan once told him "to pick up a dead coon he saw in the street on the way to work and take it home and cook up some coon stew for my family," the plaintiff testified.
Holland is seeking unspecified monetary damages against First Virginia and Brennan, 62, the facilities manager at corporate headquarters in Falls Church, where Holland worked.
First Virginia Banks Inc., with assets of $5.2 billion, owns 21 banking chains with 305 branches in three states, according to corporate executives.
Holland's attorney, Victor M. Glasberg, said in opening remarks that the case sheds light on a "frame of mind that has long since been inappropriate."
Glasberg said Brennan and other supervisors routinely belittled his client and then accused him of being overly sensitive when he complained. When Holland made more formal complaints to upper management, his supervisors retaliated by accepting a resignation Holland said he never tendered, Glasberg told the jury.
Kathleen Barlow, representing Brennan and the firm, insisted in her opening statement that Holland was renowned in the First Virginia facility for his voracious appetite for chicken.
"Chicken became a daily topic of conversation" among several employees, Barlow said. She added that Holland did not initially object to being called Chicken Little and "liked being the center of attention of this joking."
Barlow said Holland's attitude changed after he failed to properly plan a sick leave and ended up being docked pay for some of the time off. "After he brought up the sick-leave policy, the joking was no longer funny," Barlow told the jury.
Brennan, of Falls Church, testified briefly yesterday that nicknames were commonplace at work and that he had used labels such as "wop" in referring to an Italian American co-worker. Brennan said he was sometimes called Big Squirrel.
Brennan said that the nicknames were all in fun and that he stopped referring to Holland as Chicken Little when he learned that Holland's doctor had put him on a low-cholesterol diet and told him not to eat fried chicken. Barlow reserved the right to recall Brennan to the witness stand for the defense case.
In four hours of testimony yesterday, Holland said repeatedly that he found the labels pejorative from the start, but chose not to challenge them for fear of losing his job. His concern arose in part, he testified, because he was told by another employee shortly after he was hired "to be careful because I was the first black man ever to work in the maintenance department" of corporate headquarters.
Holland said he met with Brennan to ask that the name-calling be stopped, but was told he was being thin-skinned. The derogatory comments then intensified, Holland said.
On another occasion, Brennan refused to share some doughnuts he had brought to work, saying Holland would not like them "because they weren't fried in chicken fat or chicken grease," Holland testified.
Holland also described how he found a small sign that read "Chicken Little" taped to his in-house mailbox, and said that he was afraid to remove it for fear of losing his job.
Jerry Tolley, a former colleague, told the jury yesterday afternoon that he removed the sign. "I felt Bob didn't need that kind of harassment," Tolley said.
Holland, who is married and has two children, said the worst insult came when he returned to the corporate offices to collect his belongings after losing his job, which he had held for 10 months.
Holland testified that his 12-year-old son was with him when he found an opened personal letter in his in-house mailbox. Holland said that when he asked Brennan who opened the letter, "he told me he opened the goddamned letter and he told me if I didn't get out he'd have me thrown out. I was really humiliated in front of my son."
The trial will continue today.