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.
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.
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.”
Booker T. Washington wrote of Lewis Adams: “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.”
excerpts from The Family Directory 2007 Pat Wallace, Web Editor
Lewis Adams on the Tuskegee University website
Learn how Lewis Adams and George Campbell shaped the establishment and early operation of Tuskegee University.