If the earth did not tremble at the death of Willliam L. (Little Willie) Adams on Tuesday, maybe it was an oversight. Adams leaves behind a world in which his influence spread almost everywhere in Baltimore: from politics and the law to liquor interests and insurance companies, from large urban renewal projects to race tracks and taverns.
And, not to be minimized, to the world of illegal gambling.
And, not to be forgotten, he started flexing his muscles in a time when African-Americans generally had no power, and no serious money, in any of those legal businesses.
Adams, 97, a soft-spoken man with horn-rimmed glasses who died at Roland Park Place, did it the tough way. He created a large and prosperous numbers operation when such gambling was still against the law. It was against the law because the deep thinkers in Annapolis said gambling was unhealthy and immoral—since they hadn’t yet figured out the huge money to be made at the numbers game, and hadn’t yet invented a lottery operation of their own.
From his numbers business, Adams put together money and influence and dodged whatever trouble came his way—including one night in 1938 when a tavern he owned on Druid Hill Avenue was bombed by Philadelphia mobsters trying to muscle in on his racket.
Adams always said he took up the numbers business in the 1930s, as a teenager, and gave it up by 1950. He said it to reporters, and he said it to a congressional committee investigating racketeering when they subpoenaed him in the 1950s.
When investigators asked him why he ran such a criminal operation, he gave them the most honest answer he could: It was one of the few openings available for a black person in America to make any serious money.
For the doubters out there, try to understand a few realities about Baltimore when Adams made his living gambling: black people were excluded from jobs as police officers or firefighters. The state’s attorney’s office was all white. The bar association was all white. Black people couldn’t get a job with the telephone company. They couldn’t drive a municipal bus. They could teach school, but only in all-black schools, and generally at lower pay than whites.
If there was no money, how were they to start a business, or reach for political power?
Adams understood this, and he used the money he’d first accrued gambling to back a wide variety of people who went on to important things. He was there for Clarence (Du) Burns, who became the city’s first black mayor, and for George Russell, who was the first black city solicitor. He bankrolled Henry Parks who created Parks Sausage, and he helped young attorneys who went on to distinguished careers—including some who became judges.
And he was there for his wife, Victorine Adams, the first black woman on the City Council.
How much was Willie Adams worth? One time, Antero Pietila, author of “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” a study of segregation in Baltimore, asked if it was true Adams was worth $30 million.
Adams did not dispute the estimate. And, understand, that was 30 years ago.
He counted powerful whites as well as blacks among his pals, including former Gov. Marvin Mandel and the old political power broker Irv Kovens.
Over the years, gambling indictments came and went. Adams survived them all. He was arrested several times but never spent a night in jail, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison after he testified before the congressional committee investigating organized crime. But he never served time there, either.
The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, since Adams had testified under congressional immunity.
So the government went after him on tax charges. Adams told the Kefauver committee—rather modestly—that his take in the numbers business was $1,000 a day. The feds then ordered him to pay more than $800,000 in back taxes from 1947 to 1950. The case was settled for about $45,000.
And all of this contributed to the legend of Little Willie—a larger-than-life figure who quietly stared down congressmen and cops, who survived the Philly mob’s bombing of his tavern, who became and legit businessman who befriended politicians and lawyers, and helped bankroll countless black people when they had nowhere else to turn.
If the earth did not tremble at his passing, it must have been an oversight.