'Little Willie' Adams had his hand in many business ventures

The other evening, former Baltimore Sun reporters Antero Pietila and C. Fraser Smith sat in the studios of WYPR radio discussing the life and times of William Lloyd "Little Willie" Adams, who died Monday at 97.

Adams, who went from numbers runner to venture capitalist during his 60-year career, bankrolled some of the most prominent black-owned businesses in the city when regular banks wouldn't.

Pietila and Smith were probably the last to interview the somewhat elusive and below-the-radar Adams, who preferred it that way, for their books. Smith wrote "Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland," while Pietila's book is "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City."

The two writers agreed that 1946 was a watershed year for Adams, whose numbers career was then at its apogee. That year, with partner Charlie Tilghman, he opened The Sphinx Club, a members-only social club at 2107 Pennsylvania Ave.

In a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun, Pietila said it was Adams who made possible Pennsylvania Avenue's glory years as the entertainment destination for African-Americans.

Adams dominated the black liquor trade in the 1960s, and West Baltimore bar owners, in addition to getting their liquor from him, also purchased their vending machines, jukeboxes and pinball machines.

The Pennsylvania Avenue clubs and Carr's Beach near Annapolis, which he owned, "became essential spokes in the Chitlin Circuit that brought such entertainers as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and dozens more to the Baltimore area," Pietila said.

Blacks from Baltimore or Washington who were unable to get to Carr's Beach could tune their radios to WANN and listen to some of the era's greatest musicians perform.

Adams opened the Charm Center, an upscale, black-owned clothing store on Pennsylvania Avenue, in 1946. For the first time, black women in Baltimore did not have to go to New York or Philadelphia to shop because local department stores weren't interested in their business. His wife, Victorine Q. Adams, a city schoolteacher, held classes in the store to teach etiquette to adults and children.

In 1946, Adams' wife established the Colored Women's Democratic Committee, which mobilized support for white candidates who were sympathetic to black causes, and it was no accident that she signed up many of her customers as members.

Little Willie's political interests dated to 1940, when he joined his first Democratic club and aligned himself with kingmaker Irv Kovens, a West Baltimore installment-sales furniture dealer. The old 4th District would become their political fiefdom.

The two men, with the Afro-American newspaper, helped get Harry A. Cole, a young lawyer, elected in 1954 as the first black senator in Maryland history. In 1967, Adams' wife would become the first black woman elected to Baltimore's City Council.

Adams, who became a multimillionaire because of his far-flung business interests, made sure that his properties were not listed in his name. "Operators of his nightclubs and taverns always signed an undated license transfer application just in case things didn't work out," Pietila explained in his book. "Adams installed relatives of numbers lieutenants as licensees. Thus drinks fueled numbers, and vice versa."

Adams "was a great man," Neil Mudrow, who headed the Development Credit Fund for more than two decades, said in a Sun interview the other day. "He helped many businessmen both black and white. I don't think we've ever had a businessman like him in Baltimore."

One of Adams' lasting and most important white friendships dated to 1938, when he became friendly with John Luetkemeyer, the Harvard University graduate who was branch manager of Equitable Trust's North Avenue branch, where he did his banking.

According to Pietila, Luetkemeyer was enthusiastically telling Adams about a newly introduced banking service, a line of consumer credit, and stopped talking when reminded by Adams that such an economic luxury wasn't available to blacks, who might have had little or no collateral.

A few days later, he handed $60,000 in cash — $600,000 in today's money, Pietila reports in his book — to his banker friend. He asked him to put the money into a safe deposit box and keep the key, that way the banker wouldn't have to worry about his being a financial risk.

What Adams had created for himself, wrote Pietila, earned him fame as the first African-American in Baltimore with a line of credit at a local bank.

"As far as my father was concerned, he was a complete man of honor and a very close friend of the family," John A. "Jack" Luetkemeyer Jr., a Baltimore businessman and friend of Adams' for 45 years, said in a recent Sun interview. "He was a man of the community, and he really gave back to the community."

Adams' willingness to write checks and his generosity to various philanthropies were legendary. He was a close friend and benefactor of Lillie Mae Jackson, who had been president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"He financed the chapter," said James Crockett, an Adams friend since the 1930s and a retired real estate broker. "Whenever Lillie Mae Jackson needed a check, Willie wrote it."

When needed, Adams bailed out jailed civil rights workers, such as during the 1963 protest that culminated in the integration of the Northwood Theatre.

Adams, who enjoyed playing golf, helped bankroll the lawsuit that finally integrated Baltimore's public courses. Before 1951, blacks could play only at Carroll Park.

Even with all of his success, Adams never drove anything more than a basic Buick because he didn't want to call attention to himself by rolling around town in a Cadillac.

"A bit of folklore developed around Willie Adams," wrote Smith. "He could add long columns of figures in his head, accurately and quickly, a skill of some importance to a man in his business."

Smith described Adams as an "unassuming man" who often smiled and "wore a short-sleeved white shirt every day and never carried more than seven dollars in cash."

When his friend Luetkemeyer, who rose to become state treasurer and CEO of Equitable Trust Co., died in 1998, the influential folk from the world of business and politics who gathered for his funeral must have wondered about the identity of the diminutive black pallbearer.

It was Willie Adams.

A public celebration of the life of Willie Adams sponsored by the Paul Robeson Institute will be held from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Druid Hill Avenue and Whitelock Street, where his former business, residence and office was located. Information: 410-800-0175.