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C. Fraser Smith: The legend of ‘Little Willie’ Adams

For much of his Horatio Alger-like life, William L. “Little Willie” Adams was an avid golfer. One of his favorite partners was the heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis.

When Louis was in the area, they usually played at Carroll Park, then a course with sand greens and only nine holes.

For the rest of the golfing world, 18 holes was the expected minimum. Sand greens were not unusual in the beginning, but the combination — sand and half as many holes — spoke loudly of segregation. Blacks were not allowed on the rest of the city courses in Baltimore at that time.

Louis used to tease Adams — who died this week — about golf in Baltimore. It might have remained just another annoying fact in “the way it was.”

But Adams decided to find an answer. He went to Lillie May Jackson, head of the NAACP in Baltimore, to ask if the organization would help desegregate the links.

You must be kidding, she said, or words to that effect. Her organization was trying to integrate the schools. Golf? The discrimination practiced in that sphere should be confronted, but it wasn’t a priority then.

Well, asked the resourceful Adams, can we borrow your lawyer?

An important benefactor

The lawyer was Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of the Howard University Law School and a man who had promised Mrs. Jackson that he and the NAACP would “sue Jim Crow out of Maryland.” That’s between you and him, she said.

Thus did Adams and several other businessmen begin a seven-year court battle to allow blacks on all city golf courses. It was serious business, of course, but Adams joked about how white people shouldn’t have a problem with blacks on the wide open spaces of golf because there was plenty of natural separation there.

Soon after arriving in Baltimore from North Carolina, Adams had worked as a bicycle repairman. He held various jobs, but in time got involved in the street lottery or numbers racket. His ability with actual numbers became part of his legend. He was well known ultimately for paying off quickly and accurately and for saving his own money.

Nor was golf his only civil rights activity. He became an important benefactor of the NAACP.

Mrs. Jackson was asked once if she had any problem with taking money from gambling: The devil’s had that money for a long time, she reportedly said — time for the Lord to have it for awhile.

Adams became the man to see in black Baltimore. He was its unofficial but willing banker. He helped businesses. He helped with mortgages. He once promised $100,000 in bail money for Morgan State University students arrested en masse during a desegregation effort at the Northwood shopping center movie house.

A political force

With his wife, the late Victorine Adams, he became a political force. He and the late Irv Kovens — a major fundraiser for Democrats and others — became a force in Baltimore and Maryland politics. Mrs. Adams became a member of the House of Delegates and then of the Baltimore City Council.

Willie Adams once introduced himself as Victorine Adams’s husband, a deference which may have had more resonance in the black community where people knew exactly where the power lay.

What he and his demure but determined wife accomplished was revolutionary. She formed her own political organization, reaching out to other women who were eager to be part of the political process.

Some saw politics as a bit tawdry, but she urged people to see that getting things done required involvement. Years later, based significantly on her leadership, black women were elected to many political positions.

Practitioners of the political arts — candidates, consultants and others — have come to believe that an accurate profile of a voter in Baltimore today is a black woman who goes to church, has a good job and knows the issues. Last year, black women held three of the top positions in Baltimore government: mayor, comptroller and city council president.

Willie Adams kept a low profile most of his life. But in the black community of his day, everyone knew who he was and what he had done.

He had a position of great influence at a time when the doors of government and politics were closed to black Americans. He was a formidable example of up-from-pernicious mistreatment and poverty to great success.

And he didn’t forget where he came from.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org. He is the author of “Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland.”