William Lloyd "Little Willie" Adams, who went from being a numbers runner on the streets of Baltimore to the city's first prominent African-American venture capitalist, bankrolling numerous black-owned businesses such as Parks Sausage and Super Pride supermarkets, died Monday from pneumonia at Roland Park Place.
He was 97 and had been in declining health in recent years.
"Little Willie was an institution in Baltimore. And as far as the black community was concerned, he brought black entrepreneurs into the formerly all-white business community," former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III said Tuesday. "He was also a political power in his own right and had a tremendous network."
"He certainly was a major force in the city and its politics and economic development," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
"For many years he was the most 'reliable bank' that African-Americans could go to in order to start and continue to operate businesses. For years, he was the lender," said Mr. Schmoke. "When I got into office, he was less of a power, but to the Harry B. Coles and the Mitchells [pioneering black officials], he was the indispensable power."
Adams, the son of a sharecropper, developed a wide network of business and political contacts across Baltimore. In addition to helping individual politicians, he supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and similar groups. His business interests included real estate, liquor stores, mortuaries, apartment buildings, beauty parlors and Metro Plaza, which adjoins Mondawmin Mall.
Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Edgar P. Silver had been friends with Mr. Adams and his late wife, Victorine Q. Adams, the first black woman on the City Council, for nearly 60 years.
"When it wasn't popular for African-Americans to deal with banks, he helped them out financially, and many owed their careers to him and they did well," said Judge Silver. "He helped an awful lot of people get what they wanted and the help they deserved."
Mr. Adams was born Jan. 5, 1914, in Zebulon, N.C., and arrived in Baltimore in 1929, when he moved in with an aunt and uncle on North Bond Street.
He attended Dunbar High School for a time. In 1935, he married the former Victorine Quille, who had been a city educator before entering politics.
Years later he attended night classes at Douglass High School, from which he earned a diploma in 1950. He later studied at the Cortez Peters Business School and took night courses at Morgan State University and the McCoy College at the Johns Hopkins University.
During the Depression it was difficult for an uneducated black man to find a job. He worked in a rag factory, delivered newspapers, repaired bicycles and operated a shoe shine parlor. He earned a reputation for shrewdness when it came to handling and saving money, virtues that would serve him well later in life.
At 16, he became a low-level runner for an illegal lottery operation.
"His was a life of incredible achievements that started when a numbers boss rejected slips he bicycled in supposedly late one day," said former Baltimore Sun reporter Antero Pietila, who interviewed Mr. Adams for his 2010 book, "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City."
"Since he had to cover those bets, Mr. Adams himself became a numbers boss. He was 16, an uneducated kid from North Carolina who had the smarts and good judgment to make a difference."
By the late 1930s, Mr. Adams was proprietor of Little Willie's Tavern at Druid Hill Avenue and Whitelock Street. The tavern was bombed in 1938, allegedly by Philadelphia gangsters, according to newspaper accounts at the time. They had tried to muscle in on his numbers business, demanding a 5 percent cut, and when Mr. Adams balked, they bombed his bar.
Mr. Adams' wealth was grounded in the illegal lotteries that he operated. He once boasted that he handled $1,000 a day — $8,000 in today's money — in illegal lottery operations, which in Baltimore were called the numbers.
"Every day hundreds of thousands bought betting slips at newsstands, barbershops, corner stores, and dry cleaners for as little as two cents, dreaming of a 'hit,'" wrote Mr. Pietila. "Pimlico Race Course results determined the winning three-number combinations. Adams gained a reputation as a man who always paid out."
After being subpoenaed in 1951 to testify at a closed-door hearing of the U.S. Senate's Kefauver Committee on organized crime, Mr. Adams explained that he had retired from the numbers business earlier that year.
In 1951, he was indicted by a grand jury in Baltimore in a numbers conspiracy and was convicted. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1954 on the basis that he had testified before the Senate committee under a grant of immunity and his testimony could not be used against him in any criminal court.
Reflecting on his days in the numbers business, Mr. Adams explained in a 1966 interview with The Baltimore Sun, "I was too young and concerned with making a dollar. Anyway, in those days, lottery was considered a crime. If you got arrested, all you did was pay a fine. Still today, it's not a racket in the eyes of the people."
He added: "I am glad I was in the numbers business. I don't regret my past."
In 1980, Mr. Adams was charged with operating a $5 million-a-year numbers operation. He was found not guilty in 1984 in Baltimore Circuit Court.
When the Maryland State Lottery was established in 1973, Mr. Adams was hired as a consultant.
In 1940, Mr. Adams added to his ever-expanding business interests when he founded Adams Realty Brokers in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave.
"I was always working for one object — to make myself some money and go into legitimate business," Mr. Adams said in the 1966 interview.
One such business interest was Parks Sausage Co. In the 1940s, Mr. Adams brought Henry G. Parks Jr. to Baltimore and the two men bought into a Cleveland sausage firm.
The men disagreed on an expansion strategy with the majority owner, and Mr. Parks, with Mr. Adams' financial help, moved to Baltimore, where he established Parks Sausage Co. In 1969, the company became one of the first black-owned companies to trade publicly on Wall Street.
Mr. Adams bankrolled Super Pride supermarkets, which was headed by Charlie Burns, a cousin of Thurgood Marshall's, Mr. Pietila said in an interview Tuesday.
African-American businessmen who turned to Mr. Adams for financial help had to agree to the condition that he would have a 51 percent stake in the business, no matter how small his personal investment.
"Willie is an unmeddling man," a business associate told Mr. Pietila. "You don't meddle with him, he don't meddle with you."
"I used to call him the Small Business Administration," said attorney and friend Larry Gibson. "I recall that he would typically make $25,000 loans to people who were operating grocery stores and liquor stores, maybe a record shop in the 1960s."
Mr. Adams' apparent Midas touch did not extend to everything in which he invested. He joined with his friend, boxing legend Joe Louis, in creating a soft drink, Joe Louis Punch. It failed miserably.
When Mr. Adams was 65, he told The Sun he was still energized by the thrill of businesses that required risk capital. "I'm still a businessman, and by the time I'm ready to die, who knows, maybe I will have lost it all," he said.
In the 1970s, Mr. Adams brought Theo C. Rodgers to Baltimore to work for Parks Sausage.
"When we sold the company in 1977, we formed A&R [Adams & Rodgers] Development Corp.," said Mr. Rodgers. "Willie had a profound impact inside and outside of Baltimore. There isn't a black-owned business in Baltimore that he didn't finance."
Mr. Rodgers helped Mr. Adams and his wife establish the William L. and Victorine Q. Adams Foundation, which helps city students who want to attend college and study business.
Mr. Adams' philanthropic interests included the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, Liberty Medical Center, the YMCA, the Jewish National Fund and St. Francis Academy.
Mr. Adams and his wife, who died in 2006, lived for years in a house in Hanlon Park, near Lake Ashburton. For the past eight years, he had lived at Roland Park Place.
The cigar-chomping Mr. Adams enjoyed playing golf.
At Mr. Adams' request, his funeral will be private and by invitation only, Mr. Rodgers said.
Surviving are a daughter, Gertrude Venable of Emmitsburg; and a granddaughter, Trudy Venable of Dallas.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.