Victorine Q. Adams

In a 1996 photo, Victorine Q. Adams (left) looks at photos with members of the Colored Women's Democratic Campaign Committee, a group she founded more than 50 years ago. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung / December 15, 1996)

Victorine Q. Adams
1912- 2006

Victorine Q. Adams, a Baltimore pioneer in African-American politics and civic leader, became the first black woman on the City Council nearly four decades ago.

"She was a very fiery woman at a time when, in city government, women were in the minority," said Council President Sheila Dixon. "That kind of a voice for those who didn't have a voice was so key to city government."

A former schoolteacher, Mrs. Adams founded the Colored Women's Democratic Campaign Committee in 1946 to mobilize support for candidates - then invariably white - who were sympathetic to black causes, among them Theodore R. McKeldin, the city's last Republican mayor.

From a base in the Adams household's living room, the committee pushed for change and African-American voter registration. In 1954, the group helped stage a landmark victory when Judge Harry A. Cole - then a young black Republican lawyer - won a state Senate seat over the white candidate backed by the entrenched Democratic Party machine of political boss Jack Pollack.

The margin of victory was 37 votes.

At the group's 50th anniversary in 1996, Mrs. Adams was honored at a City Hall ceremony and showered with praise from black officeholders. "She paved the way for all of us," said Helen L. Holton, then elected to the council.

Mrs. Adams ran unsuccessfully in 1962 for the state Senate and four years later was elected to the House of Delegates. But she resigned after a year and won election to the City Council. She held the seat for four terms, until 1983.

Among her accomplishments was working with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. in 1979 to establish the Baltimore Fuel Fund, which has helped thousands of area families with winter heating bills and is now named the Victorine Q. Adams Fuel Fund. It became a model for other jurisdictions in Maryland and the nation.

She also pushed for urban renewal, low- and middle-income housing, improved nursing homes and increased programs to help the elderly.

Born in Baltimore, Mrs. Adams was the daughter of Joseph C. and Estelle Tate Quille. Her father was a tavern owner.

She was a graduate of Douglass High School and what are now Coppin State and Morgan State universities and was a teacher for 14 years before entering politics.

She married William L. "Little Willie" Adams in 1935. Her husband was widely known as a leader locally in the numbers games and became a wealthy businessman and power broker. Among the companies he helped was the old Parks Sausage Co., once Baltimore's largest black-owned enterprise.

Mrs. Adams resented the news media frequently referring to her husband's past, and rose in the City Council chamber in 1971 to make her point very clearly.

"I am the wife of Willie Adams," she said. "And his former status has been chronicled and presented for years - over and over."

In the 1960s, Mrs. Adams was a leader in fundraising for now-defunct Provident Hospital, the city's lone minority-owned hospital, for its move from Division Street to a new building off Liberty Heights Avenue.

She had been a member of the National Council of Negro Women, a member of the state's Democratic Central Committee, a delegate to the party's national convention in 1964 and a local election campaign director for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

At her retirement from the City Council, she said, "Just like everything else, machines wear out, and I am wearing out and wearing down."

"The council is losing a great person, not only a great person but a history maker," was the comment of the late Clarence H. Du Burns, who was then president of the council and later Baltimore's first black mayor. "You have served as a role model for many blacks in the city."

As word of her death spread, there were many accolades.

"Victorine was a trailblazer. She served the citizens of Baltimore with great distinction," said Clarence Bishop, Mayor Martin O'Malley's chief of staff. "She was a role model and a great example of a true servant of the people. The city has lost a great leader."

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - who served on the council with her - remembered Mrs. Adams as "a very wonderful council lady."

He said that with the fuel fund, she "saved many a person from being cold."

"The lady always looked out for people in need. Always," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., who served on the council with Mrs. Adams. "That is what she was in public office to do, to make things better for those in need and she did a great job."

"She was a giant among civil rights leaders in Baltimore and nationally," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, another contemporary in office.

Raymond V. Haysbert praised Mrs. Adams for her ability to work with the community by deferring credit to others.

"Victorine was one of the shrewdest people I've known," said Mr. Haysbert, who has known Mrs. Adams and her husband since 1952. "Her currency was the quality of life of the community. That was what she dealt with."
--David Michael Ettlin and John Fritze
Originally published January 10, 2006