Lewis Adams biography
About Lewis Adams, briefly...
Born in slavery in Tuskegee (Macon County) Alabama, on October 27, 1842, Lewis Adams spent the early years of his life in his father’s plantation service shops, where he mastered the trades of tinsmithing, harnessmaking and shoemaking. He also taught himself to read and write by going over some of the lessons the other Adams children received from a hired tutor. He married the former Sarah (“Sallie”) Green, the mulatto daughter of the owner of the adjoining Green Plantation, before slavery ended. Two of their children, Mary Ann and a baby who did not survive, were born before emancipation.
When the Civil War results abolished slavery in 1865, Lewis Adams left his father’s plantation and opened his own shop in downtown Tuskegee, near the site of the current public square. Because he rendered a much needed and desired service to the entire community, his reputation improved race relations in the complicated Reconstruction Era, influencing a number of young men to apprentice themselves to him and learn his valuation trades. At the family residence, his wife, “Sallie,” mother of his sixteen children, taught cooking and sewing to interested young women. As both places attracted many more students than they could accommodate, Lewis Adams wished for a vocational school to provide this training. Another effort by the officers and members of the A.M.E. Zion Church (Butler Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church), where he was a deacon and superintendent of the Sunday School, had failed to provide adequate rudimentary education for Negroes because the neophyte teachers lacked proper training. Thus, Lewis Adams horizon of critical needs expanded to include a normal school for the training of teachers.
Meanwhile, the upcoming election year of 1880 attracted the primary attention of the citizens of Macon County, where some residents called on the people to unseat Colonel Wilbur F. Foster and Mr. Arthur L. Brooks, who represented them in the Alabama House of Representatives. Articles appeared in the Tuskegee Weekly News that proposed strong candidates who might be nominated to oppose the incumbents, and one of them was chairman of the Macon County Democratic Committee. With the outcome in doubt, it was Colonel Foster who then appealed to Lewis Adams to get the Negro vote for him and Mr. Brooks. If re-elected, he promised, the two men would do all they could to establish the normal school that Lewis Adams requested. The Negro voters rallied behind Mr. Adams and the incumbents retained their seats in the State Legislature. Subsequently, Mr. Brooks, as the one holding membership on the Education Committee, introduced House Bill 165 that Governor Rufus W. Cobb signed on February 12, 1881, to establish the Tuskegee State Normal School, known later as Tuskegee Institute and now, as Tuskegee University.
Lewis Adams was named one of the three original commissioners to supervise the operation of the school, and remained on the board until his death in 1905, when he left a remarkable record of cooperation in the cause of Tuskegee Institute. He worked closely with Mr. George W. Campbell in securing Booker T. Washington from Hampton Institute as the first principal, joining the faculty himself in 1890 as the teacher of his three trades. In fact, Lewis Adams had hosted the young Booker T. Washington at his residence from the time he arrived in Tuskegee until Mr. Washington found a place to live, while arranging for the new school to begin operating in the adjacent shed which belonged to the A.M.E. Zion Church. The elder daughter of Lewis Adams, Mary Ann, prepared his first meal upon his arrival in Tuskegee.
As he was the vital harbinger to Booker T. Washington, the career of Lewis Adams is sine qua non in the Tuskegee Institute Story. The epitaph on his grave aptly records that he was “Faithful in all the relations of life.” He died in Sunday School on April 30, 1905, felled by a stroke while singing, “Whosoever Will Let Him Come.”
Sources: “Portrait in Historical Perspective”, Program prepared by the Department of Archives, Tuskegee University, for the Unveiling of Lewis Adams’ portrait at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama, April 27, 1978.
Recollections of Lillie Alice Motley Wilson, granddaughter of Lewis and Sallie Adams
Booker T. Washington’s Appraisals of Lewis Adams
(Excerpted from Booker T Washington, The Story of My Life and Work)
“When I reached Tuskegee, I found that Mr. Lewis Adams, a colored man of great intelligence and thrift, who was born a slave near Tuskegee, had first started the movement to have some kind of Normal School in Tuskegee for the education of colored youth. At the time he conceived this idea, Hon. W. F. Foster and Hon. A. L. Brooks, both white Democrats, were members of the Alabama Legislature, and Mr. Adams so interested them in the movement that they promised to use their influence in the Legislature to secure an annual appropriation of $2,000 toward expenses of a Normal School, provided one could be properly organized and started.” “The leading colored citizen in Tuskegee is Mr. Lewis Adams, to whom the honor should largely be given for securing the location of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in the town. Mr. Adams is not only an intelligent and successful business man, but is one who combines with his business enterprise rare common sense and discretion. In the most trying periods of the growth of the Tuskegee Institute, I have always found Mr. Adams a man on whom I could rely for the wisest advice. He enjoys the highest respect and confidence of the citizens of both races, and it is largely through his power and influence that the two races lives together in harmony and peace in the town.”
Lewis Adams heritage
Jessie Adams was a slave master who owned a livery stable in the town of Tuskegee (Macon County), Alabama. Jessie acknowledged Lewis as his son, although Lewis’ mother is unknown. Sallie Green was a house girl at the plantation that adjoined the Adams plantation.
** Source: Lewis Adams family Bible. Other information obtained from descendants.
Atty. Milton C. Davis 1996 Charter Day Speech
The following is excerpted from a speech delivered in the Tuskegee University Chapel by Attorney Milton Carver Davis, past General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., at Charter Day Convocation during homecoming weekend, 1996. Mr. Davis is a native Tuskegeean and alumnus of Tuskegee University. He is a practicing attorney in Tuskegee, Alabama.
“Honoring and Building on Our Rich Black Heritage”
“I was born, reared and educated in Tuskegee. My mother even named me Milton Carver Davis in honor of George Washington Carver. I have seen many Tuskegee homecoming weekends. I refer to our homecoming weekend as the ‘Weekend of Inconvenience.’ There are not enough hotel rooms, not enough restaurants, not enough parking places, not enough restrooms, not enough seats in Alumni Bowl. The returning alumni know all about this inconvenience. You are aware before you purchase your plane tickets or pack your automobile to drive the long distance here. Knowing all this inconvenience awaits you does not deter you in the least. You cannot wait to get here and get in the middle of it all. You know it’s true. Tuskegee Homecoming has little to do with personal inconvenience and creature comforts. Tuskegee’s homecoming has more to do with--fellowship, friendship, and being inspired by standing on hallowed ground. Our homecoming have everything to do with being in a place and among people who recognized us as important and vital human beings during our stay here. Homecoming, ‘Tuskegee style’ is about reconnecting with a university and a philosophy that empowered us and propelled us in our careers filled with confidence and optimism. These are some of the reasons why we joyfully endure the inconvenience. It is always better when the team wins the game, but we celebrate regardless of the outcome. We are home, We are family. We love this place.
“The ‘Tuskegee Family’ is not a myth nor does that name overstate the concept and feelings of the Tuskegee students and Alumni. This is ‘Mother Tuskegee’ as Paul Laurence Dunbar proclaims in the Tuskegee Song. We refer to ourselves as sons and daughters of Booker T. The care, respect, support and nurturing that we display for one another are real and genuine.
“As with all family celebrations, we recount and reflect upon our history--seeking to interpret it for the younger generations and, inevitably, we take time to talk to each other about family business. That means that on this occasion, it is perfectly acceptable for me to refer to myself and to my personal experiences because I claim my right as a member of the Tuskegee Family. History is important to us. We carefully examine it seeking to find some example or implication for our present and future. My family has been in this town for many generations, and I recall and cherish much oral history received from my grandparents and parents. My grandmother, Mrs. Jimmie M. Howard, died in 1981 at the age of 91, and I recall the many times she shared her participating in this historical moments of this institution.
“...The history of Tuskegee University includes personalities who helped to make this institution a national treasure and a crown jewel of the African-American Community. This history is a source of inspiration and encouragement to all who study it. Like many people in this room, I have read and reviewed the recorded history surrounding the occasion we observe today--CHARTER DAY.
“One historian writes that in the election of 1880, Colonel Wilbur F. Foster, a wounded Confederate veteran and lawyer, was the Democratic candidate for the Alabama State Senate. He and his colleague, Arthur L. Brooks, a candidate for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives, came to Lewis Adams, a former slave artisan in Tuskegee who was an accomplished craftsman and businessman in Tuskegee, and asked his price for swaying the black vote of the town support. Mr. Adams had never attended school but somehow had learned to read and write. The commentator describes Adams as shrewd and a person who could talk with ease to all races without fear or bombast. The write continues, Adams said he wanted nothing for himself, but would deliver the Negro vote in return for some substantial gain for the black community.
“Adams secured the politicians’ promise to sponsor and secure passage of a bill for a Negro normal school in Tuskegee. The politicians kept their promise and introduced House Bill No. 165 in the Legislature of Alabama, and on February 10, 1881 the Governor of Alabama signed the Act creating the law that authorized the establishment of Tuskegee Normal School, appropriated the sum of $2000 annually for teacher salaries and created a supervisory board of three commissioners, Lewis Adams among them. Thus was our beloved Tuskegee brought into legal existence and CHARTERED. This racially integrated board of commissioners recruited a teacher for this newly Chartered entity by soliciting help from then Hampton Institute. Booker T. Washington answered the call and it was his leadership in concert with others that brought about the actual existence of Tuskegee Normal School now Tuskegee University.
“...Lewis Adams and others in this town had indeed organized themselves, formed a community seeking to uplift the whole and realized that the destiny of one depended on the destiny of all. Coalition building, cooperation, pursuing mutual interest and goals and a commonality of purpose were at the heart of their mission.
“The people back here knew the power of politics. Politics is the process that determines who gets what, when and how. It was through the strength of their unified political power that this Charter was realized. Lewis Adams and his colleagues know also that any teacher must first be one with the community where he or she teaches, and must understand and encourage the legitimate aspirations of the people who are taught. They set about politicizing Booker T. Washington, teaching him to exercise fully his rights as a citizen.
“The individuals who worked to establish this Charter for Tuskegee were people of integrity, a trait all to often missing in the public affairs of our institutions and governments at every level. These persons who brought about this institution were honest, sincere and trustworthy in regard to the promises made to introduce a bill, charter a school and appropriate funds for the maintenance of that school. We might never have been here this morning if Lewis Adams had not had the integrity to put the welfare of his people and his community ahead of some personal payoff or personal gain. When asked the price of swaying the black vote-- his answer was that he wanted a substantial gain for the black people. Likewise, we must confess that the legislators also kept their promises. In a time like the 1880s, almost any excuse for not succeeding in the legislation might has been offered. Integrity undergirded the process on both sides.
“Booker T. Washington, the great leader and professor, taught the people of Tuskegee but the people of Tuskegee, likewise, taught Booker T. Washington. He was learning a great deal as well as teaching, so he decided to stay here for life. The people of Tuskegee met Booker T. Washington the day he arrived*, unified in purpose, ready to support his leadership, organized to serve him and the mission demonstrating the strength of their political power and confident in the dignity of their humanity. The people were ready for Booker T. Washington and Booker T. Washington was prepared for the people. Every good thing accomplished since July 4, 1881, the day classes started here, is a result of this mutual teamwork.
*Note: Mary Ann Adams, oldest daughter of Lewis Adams, prepared Booker T. Washington’s first meal upon his arrival in Tuskegee.
reprinted from The Family Directory 2007
The Lewis Adams Family of Tuskegee Site Home
Pat Wallace, Web Editor