The West Baltimore businessman, real estate tycoon, venture capitalist and political heavyweight who famously had an illegal gambling conviction overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, died June 27 from pneumonia at the age of 97.
William Lloyd “Little Willie” Adams might have been one of the wealthiest Black men in America, with an estimated worth of $40 million in the late 1970s.
He was co-founder of the Parks Sausage Co., once Baltimore’s largest Black-owned business; co-owner of the real estate development and construction firm A & R Development Corp.; and the partial owner or backbone of hundreds of businesses and developments in the city and state.
Adams was the driving force behind numerous political campaigns, including that of former Mayor and Gov. William Donald Schafer. He played a principal role in elevating Black leadership in the City Council and Maryland General Assembly, and alongside other Black political forces, he helped elect the state’s first Black congressman, Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.
Clerk of the Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. says Adams and his wife Victorine Q. Adams – who was the first Black woman to serve on the Baltimore City Council – were instrumental in helping him win his first election to the House of Delegates. “He was always there to help in the Black community and it was laudable and so unselfish for him to do this,” Conaway said.
But along with his sweeping influence in the business and political scene, Adams will also be remembered as a man willing to help everyday people.
John Milton Wesley, who partnered with Adams on housing projects while working for the Housing Authority and wrote a biographical sketch on Adams, said the businessman once wrote a man facing foreclosure a check for $147,000. After saving the man’s house, Adams invited him to a game of golf. “He was just an extraordinary man,” Wesley said.
He added that Adams was a part of a team that fought for integration of Baltimore’s golf courses all the way to the Supreme Court.
Prior to his days as a well-respected businessman, Adams led a different life.The North Carolina native moved to Baltimore as a youth in 1929. After holding various odd jobs, including as a laborer, he became heavily involved in the illegal lottery business to make ends meet.
Adams told a congressional investigative panel about his numbers running past while giving testimony on organized crime in 1951. “I used the illegal lottery to get into legitimate businesses,” he later told the AFRO in a 1979 article.
Even though Adams said he had quit the numbers game a year prior to testifying, the state convicted him of conspiracy to violate gambling laws and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 1954, saying the state violated Adams’ Fifth Amendment rights by using his testimony as evidence.
But the highest court’s rejection of the case apparently didn’t stop city authorities from targeting Adams.
According to various AFRO archive articles, police claimed Adams still ran an illegal numbers operation that netted $100,000 a week. They conducted mass raids of his businesses, arrested associates and family members, planted evidence and spied on him through surveillance cameras.
Some Black supporters said authorities targeted Adams to overshadow a corruption scandal involving the city’s White state’s attorney. Conaway was one of them. “I thought it was definitely a campaign to smear him,” Conaway said. “He was one of the most outstanding African-American citizens we had at the time.”
The city’s attempts to tie Adams to the illegal business continued into the 1980s, but were unsuccessful. Ironically, when the Maryland State Lottery was established in 1973, the state hired Adams as a consultant.
“The sad thing is that most people only know him for that illegal gambling,” Wesley said. “They don’t understand how big of an impact he had on this city and not only the big, notable things he did, but what he did for individuals.”
Adams was often praised for his work, receiving honors for his philanthropic and business efforts. He established a scholarship program for students to study business and partnered with various groups including the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund. He received an honorary doctorate from the former Morris Brown College in Atlanta in 1977.
Dr. Anne Emery, who serves on the board of the Bluford Drew Jemison Academy, said Adams’ 25-year-old foundation donates to the school every year. The charity has handed out over $1 million to needy students and organizations since its inception.
“Not only has he helped the Bluford Drew Jemison schools, but he has undergirded and supported so many professionals in this city,” Emery said. “He is an icon and we do not have anyone who can match him at this point.”
More recently, his company provided Black workers with hundreds of demolition and construction jobs on city housing projects.
Conaway says he also wants to debunk myths that Adams’ riches came from his wife’s family. “That’s not how Willie got his money,” he said. “He knew how to turn a dollar and he knew how to save a dollar.”
Conaway and other close friends of Adams describe him as a private, unassuming man, who did not flaunt his wealth. “He bought his first Cadillac … and kept it for 20 years,” Conaway explained. “He was just a quiet man. Most that know the legend didn’t know the man.”
Adams is survived by a daughter, Gertrude Venable and a granddaughter, Trudy Venable.
The AFRO has been informed that the funeral arrangements are private, as well as the viewing, as requested by the family. Contributions can be made to the William and Victorine Adams Foundation, 1040 Park Ave., Suite 300, Baltimore, MD 21201.