Clara I. Adams, a distinguished educator whose career as a faculty member and administrator at Morgan State University spanned six decades and earned her the distinction of having one of the longest service records in the history of the university, died Aug. 5 at a nephew’s home in East York, Pennsylvania, of kidney failure.
The lifelong East Baltimore resident was 87.
“Clara Adams was one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever known. She was a unique person, fun and very serious. And if you didn’t want her opinion, then don’t ask,” said Morgan President David K. Wilson.
“She was a trailblazer and the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts in cooperation with Smith College. She came to Morgan and never left. Her whole life was Morgan, where she became an institution in her own right,” said Dr. Wilson, a Harbor East resident.
In a statement announcing her death, he wrote: “She was a mother to many of us, and knew more about the history of Morgan than anyone I know. I relied on her wisdom, her devotion to Morgan, and her judgement. We will miss Dr. Adams more than any of us can process at this moment.”
Clara Isabel Adams, daughter of William S. Adams Sr., a Bethlehem Steel Corp. longshoreman, and his wife, Mary Emma Cornish “Mimi” Adams, a domestic worker, was born in Baltimore and raised in the 1800 block of Federal St.
“My grandparents, who were unskilled workers, were all about education through and through, and they saw and believed in the value of an education,” said a nephew, Steven Adams of East York, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Adams’ mother’s white employer suggested one day that she “get her girls to help with the work around the house,” Mr. Adams wrote in a eulogy for his aunt. “My grandmother, Mimi, also called Ms. Meems when she wasn’t being sassy, wasn’t having none of that business about her girls doing domestic work,” he wrote.
“Ms. Meems stood up and told her boss that ‘these girls were gonna get an education and they were not gonna be scrubbing nobody’s floors but their own.‘ Education was the very core of who my aunt was,” wrote Mr. Adams, who in a telephone interview described his grandmother as “feisty.”
Dr. Adams was always proud that her parents were the first in the neighborhood to purchase a set of encyclopedias for their children and made them available to other neighborhood kids when they had to do a research project for school.
It was while she was a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School that Dr. Adams’ chemistry teacher played an instrumental role in helping her discover what would eventually become her life’s work.
Dr. Adams was a 1954 summa cum laude graduate of Morgan, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and three years later obtained master’s degree from Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, in Ames.
While she was studying for her master’s degree, Dr. Adams was a research fellow at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s laboratory in Ames. She was later employed as a chemist at the National Heart Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda before coming to Morgan in 1958 as an assistant professor of chemistry.
Taking a leave from Morgan while pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts and in cooperation with Smith College, Dr. Adams was a teaching fellow at Smith College; she returned to Morgan in 1968 as an associate professor of chemistry.
She received her doctorate in 1970, and from 1973 to 1975 she was a professor of chemistry and chaired the chemistry department. From 1975 to 1985, she was dean of the School of Graduate Studies, and after a decade in that position, named to head Morgan’s academic division.
In 1986, Dr. Adams was appointed vice president for academic affairs, after having served in that position for five months in 1985 as acting vice president.
Dr. Wilson wrote that her appointment came at a time of “critical challenges to Morgan’s survival — one that questioned the quality of academic programs and proposed merger of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities into a larger University of Maryland System.”
“The calm elegance and intrepid persistence with which she maintained the integrity of Morgan’s academic program made her nearly twenty-year tenure as vice president for Academic Affairs one of the most significant in Morgan’s history,” Dr. Wilson wrote.
She presided over unprecedented growth that resulted in five new bachelor’s degree programs, six new master’s degree programs, and 11 doctoral programs that were either approved or implemented. At the same time, she worked at increasing the quality of students entering and graduating from Morgan.
“She would not compromise academic stands for anyone,” Dr. Wilson said. “She built a strong faculty and she said, ‘We’re going to recruit the best faculty from across the country.’ It was Dr. Adams who set the tone for all of that.”
In 2004, she was named special assistant to the president, a position she held until retiring in 2018.
In recognition of her tenure at Morgan, the Clara I. Adams Honors College is named for her.
Dr. Wilson said Dr. Adams had read everything and anything she could locate about Morgan.
“She was a walking encyclopedia when it came to Morgan. Sure, you could go to the library and look it up, or look up Black segregation in Maryland, or you could go to Dr. Adams,” he said.
Dr. Adams was active in professional organizations associated with higher education, including the Council of Graduate Studies, on which she served on the board; the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, of which she was president from 1984 to 1986; and vice president and later president of the Conference of Deans of Black Graduate Schools.
Other affiliations included the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of University Professors, the American Chemical Society, the Association of American Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the Quality Education for Minorities Network, where she served as a member of its board and as treasurer.
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Dr. Adams had been a member of the boards of the National Aquarium, Morgan Christian and Interfaith Center, and the Baltimore School for the Arts.
She was a lifelong member of Christ United Methodist Church and an active member of the Epsilon Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and 100 Black Women, whose annual fundraiser dinner at Martin’s West raises money for scholarships and community projects.
“She was a world traveler, an avid shopper, and family-oriented,” Mr. Adams said. “She also liked doting on her nieces and nephews,”
Said Dr. Wilson: “In the 153-year history of Morgan, we’ve never had a woman as president, but I consider Clara Adams the honorary president of Morgan, and I told her that two years ago at a reception when she retired. When I told my Cabinet in a Zoom meeting that she had died, there wasn’t a dry eye on that call.”
Funeral services for Dr. Adams will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in the Gilliam Concert Hall in the Murphy Fine Arts Center at 1700 E. Cold Spring Lane on Morgan State’s campus.
In addition to her nephew, Dr. Adams is survived by a brother, Harold W. Adams of Essex; a sister, Gloria Adams Jones of East Baltimore; two other nephews; three nieces; six great-nephews; three great-nieces; and a great-great niece.