Dr. Willie Adams broke a political glass ceiling in Albany when he became the first African American to serve as mayor of the city. Adams, a gynecologist and an Army veteran, served two terms as the city’s chief elected official. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — He wasn’t aware at the time, but Jesse King — the man who was overseer of the Quincy, Fla., tobacco field where Willie Adams worked from the time he was 6 years old — probably did the then 16-year-old Adams one of the biggest favors of his young life.
“We worked in what they called ‘shade tobacco,’ which wasn’t like what they grow up in North Carolina and South Carolina,” Adams said during a recent lunch at Jo’s Southern Cooking in Albany. “My mother was a single parent, and I started working in the tobacco fields when I was 6 years old. Worked my way up from cropping to toter — the person who took the sticks of strung tobacco to the barge — and finally the primer, who hung the crop in the barn.
Jo's Country Cooking
ALBANY — When I tell Dr. Willie Adams part of our A Table With a View concept is to allow the person we’re interviewing to select where we’ll have lunch, he doesn’t hesitate for even an instant.
“Let’s go to Jo’s,” Adams said.
If you’re a regular diner at the 1935 Dawson Road establishment, you understand the former Albany mayor’s enthusiasm. If you’re not, I’ll offer a little unsolicited advice: Don’t go into Jo’s Country Cooking for a meal unless you’re hungry. Because it’s a guarantee when you leave, you’ll be full.
“First of all, I enjoy eating here because of the food,” Adams said. “It’s cooked well, and they have nice presentation. Also, I’ve known the owner — the Rev. John Anderson — and his late wife, Josephine (for whom Jo’s is named), since I’ve been in Albany. Rev. Anderson — I always call him ‘Preacher’ — is a fine man, and his wife was one of the best RNs I ever knew.”
When our waitress, Shaunna Davis, a six-year veteran at Jo’s and one of the restaurant’s fixtures — and a prime reason many regulars return — takes our order, Adams encourages me to dig deep into my Southern roots and have some genuine Soul Food. He orders the ox tail with black-eyed peas, cabbage and corn bread. I tell him — and Shaunna — that I’ve already heard how good the beef tips and rice are, so I forego the adventure and make that my order. My two sides are black-eyed peas and mac and cheese, and corn bread that proves to be as good as it looks.
When Shaunna delivers our plates, there’s enough food to take care of any traces of hunger. Adams’ ox tail is listed on the menu at $10.95, while my beef tips and rice are $6.95. With his lemonade and my water, our bill comes to $20.06, a very reasonable price for more food than either of us can eat, although we both give it our best shot.
I can’t say if Adams enjoyed his meal as much as I did mine, but judging from the way he went at those ox tails, I’m guessing he did. My only complaint: The good doctor headed for the golf course to leisurely work on his swing after that delicious meal. I had to go back to work. I’d much rather have settled in for a contented nap.
-- Carlton Fletcher
“Those leaves are delicate, and one day we went into the field after a heavy rain. I had on a military-style overcoat, and Mr. Jesse — who was a very fine gentleman — told me, ‘You pull off that coat, or you get out of my field.’ I just looked at him for a second and said, ‘Mr. Jesse, I’m getting out of your field.’”
Not long after that, Adams landed a job at the Quincy hospital as an orderly, getting a first taste of the practice of medicine. Now, some 57 years later, with somewhere between 8,500 and 9,000 infant deliveries under his belt, Adams, the man who would become Albany’s first African-American mayor, is still doing “minor gynecological procedures” at 73. And while he spends more time now on the golf course than he does working with his daughter, Valerie, at their OB/GYN practice in Terrell County, there may not be a more respected man in the region.
The willingness to roll up his sleeves and go to work — the tenacity — that got him through the hot summers of tobacco season in pre-Civil Rights-era Quincy, Fla., is the same quality that prepared Adams for historic political and medical careers in the Georgia city that became his adopted home. But Adams is quick to tell you that it was the lessons of his mother, Maybell, who passed away about a month before he finished high school, that prepared him for the life he would live.
“This is my mother, this is what she gave me,” Adams said during an extended conversation over a delicious home-cooked Southern lunch. “We were at the barn, a bunch of us who weren’t even 6 years old yet, with our mothers one day. The mothers couldn’t afford babysitters, so we played around the barn while they worked.
“On this day the owner’s kid, who was about our age, came out to play with us. One of the other little black boys called the owner’s kid, who was white, by his first name, called him Charlie. His mother spanked his ass and said, ‘You call him Mr. Charlie.’ My mother called me aside, and she had that tone of voice that made me think I was in trouble. She said, ‘Junior, if I ever hear you call someone your same age mister, I’ll spank your ass.’ What that did was give me the freedom to look at people with respect, not fear. That’s something she left me that was more valuable than any material thing.”
Adams picked up plenty of life lessons working as an orderly, some of which didn’t go down so well at the lunch table.
“I was working one night and one of the traditional old doctors was looking after a man who had a wound on his leg,” Adams said. “I ran to the nurse to tell her something I’d discovered, excited because I felt I was helping. There was something on the man’s wound, and when the doctor was making rounds he said, ‘That’s good. We use organisms to clean wounds sometimes.’
“It was maggots. Needless to say, that was not someone I wanted looking after me.”
When Adams graduated high school, taken in after his mother’s death from leukemia by “second mother” Mary Banks, who’d promised Maybell that she’d take care of her son if anything ever happened to her, he took a career path that seemed the best of his limited choices: the military. He went through basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., before being assigned to artillery school in Fort Chaffee, Ark.
It was in the military that Adams started to expand his very limited worldview.
“For the first time, I met and associated with people who didn’t look like me,” he said. “I remember staring at the guy next to me in formation at basic training until he said, ‘What you looking at?’ I pointed to his name tag and said, ‘Why did your mother name you Jesus?’ He said, ‘It’s pronounced hay-soos.’ I didn’t know.”
Black soldiers were not exactly made to feel at home in Arkansas, so when Adams’ unit was asked if any wanted an early release to attend college, he was one of the first to raise his hand.
“They told us if we weren’t registered for college in two months, they’d bring us back for two years,” Adams said. “I didn’t have any money for college, but all I could think was that I didn’t want to go back to Fort Chaffee.”
So Adams came up with a scheme.
“Going to Florida A&M then cost $75 a semester,” he said. “I got a job as a typist in a Tallahassee hospital, and I soon came up with a plan that would allow me to become a doctor. My scheme was to major as a nurse — I was one of the first males in Florida to declare as a nursing major — and once I got a job as a nurse I could use the money I made to pay for medical school.
“I was in pre-med classes and doing well when one of my instructors, Mr. E.E. Ware, pulled me aside and asked me what I was doing majoring in nursing. I told him my scheme, and he took me into his office and showed me how that would never work. Then he said if I continued to do well in my classes, he’d help me get into medical school. He started by getting me a job in the lab.”
It was a job Adams remembers with a bit of the black humor common to his profession.
“We were studying the skeletons of cats in one of our classes, and everyone was responsible for bringing in their own cat,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Let me just say there were a lot of cats that went missing around Tallahassee at that time.”
While at FAMU, Adams was enrolled in the college’s ROTC program, counting on a commission that would allow him to leave school as an Army officer. But his first foray into politics almost cost him that opportunity.
“I was elected student body president at FAMU during my senior year, 1962-63,” he said. “Little did I know back then … But anyway, during that time there were lots of civil rights demonstrations, and in my leadership position I was arrested seven different times. The head of the ROTC program, Col. Parker, who didn’t have the benefit of the Southern experience, told me if I was arrested once more he would not recommend me for my commission.
“Lo and behold, I was arrested again, and true to his word, he withheld my commission. So I did what I’d been doing in the summers while I was at FAMU: went to Atlantic City to manage a parking lot.”
Col. Parker had to eat his words and provide Adams with his commission after Adams wrote a letter to the commandant of the Third Army that said, “If fighting for my freedom and rights prevents me from being commissioned into the Army, so be it.”
With no money for medical school, the newly commissioned Adams chose to go to the Army’s helicopter school in San Antonio, Texas. But his problem with visual depth perception ended his flying plans.
“See, I think God intervenes in our lives along the way,” he said. “A lot of guys I knew who flew helicopters were shot down in Vietnam, and I very well could have been one of them. But God took me out of harm’s way.”
Instead of becoming a pilot, Adams’ pre-med background landed him at Valley Forge (Pa.) Army Hospital, where he was taken under the wing of Maj. Kenneth D. Orr. Orr moved Adams to headquarters, where he landed in a “prestigious position that would show me what being a doctor was all about.” When Orr saw how hard Adams worked, he told him he’d make sure the young lieutenant got into medical school.
“It was in Valley Forge that I began to erase all the bad thoughts about people who didn’t grow up like me,” Adams said. “I learned what America was truly all about; I lived in the melting pot. I even learned how to do the polka at a Polish wedding.
“I was with another lieutenant, a white guy who had studied pre-med at Harvard, at the officers’ club when a young lady from Paducah, Ky., came over to talk with us. The other guy left, and the young lady and I talked on for a while. At the end of our conversation, she said to me, ‘Lt. Adams, I’m so glad I met you. I was taught by my mother and father that people like you could not do certain things. After talking with you, I think I was misled.’ That was a turning point in my life.”
With Orr’s encouragement, Adams applied to three medical schools: McGill University in Montreal, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., and Howard University in Washington, D.C. Orr set up a meeting with Howard’s dean of students, even approving transportation from the base’s motor pool, but that meeting was pretty much a flop.
“The dean wasn’t there, and the assistant dean finally met with me and said, ‘It looks like you could do a little better on your MED CAT (Medical College Admission Test).’ That was that. I told him thank you, went to my car and went home.
“When I got back home, my oldest daughter, who had been crawling for a while, stood up and started running. And I got a telegram from Meharry saying I’d been accepted. I figured two good things at once were a good sign. As I later learned, at Howard they accept 125 in each freshman class knowing only 100 will go forward. At Meharry, they say, ‘Once we accept you, we’ll make you a doctor.’”
So Adams left the Army and headed for Nashville on the GI Bill. Ever mindful of FAMU adviser Ware’s admonition — “Remember, here you were a big fish in a little pond; you’re about to head into a much bigger pond” — he earned his degree and headed north to Flint, Mich., and an internship at another melting pot. The cold weather was too difficult an adjustment for Adams, though, and he started looking south.
“A lot of the Southern hospitals were looking for someone like me to integrate their staff, so that actually worked in my favor,” he said. “I applied at two institutions for my residency: the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital and Emory and Grady in Atlanta. I interviewed at both, and in Miami two things got my attention. You had to have an interpreter (for the largely Hispanic population), and you had to do your own lab work.
“I interviewed with Dr. Henry Foster at Emory and liked what I saw there. While doing OB/GYN rounds, I appreciated the immediate gratification that bringing a baby into the world gave me, and I decided that’s what I would do. It was a happy field of medicine.”
Admas worked at Emory until “running at max all the time” burned him out, and he was persuaded in 1973 to accept an offer from Dr. James Hubbard to join his private practice in Albany. After 18 months the partners “got a medical divorce” when Hubbard did not follow through with promised expansion plans. Adams went out on his own and brought old friend James Woods from California to join him. The two worked together for 32 years.
“The way I convinced James to come to Albany was I took him to Merry Acres and fed him their fried chicken and cabbage,” Adams said.
Albany in 1973 was not known as a bastion of tolerance, but Adams helped change that. His was the second African-American family in the city to move into a house west of Slappey Boulevard, and he became the first black member of the old Westtown Golf Club. He’d grown to love golf while playing with Orr in Pennsylvania and found an unexpected ally in then-Albany Mayor Motie Wiggins in his quest to join the country club.
“I walk into his office, and he’s got this big picture of George Wallace on his wall signed ‘Best wishes Motie,’” Adams laughs. “But he welcomed me, and when I told him I liked to play golf and wanted to join the country club he said, ‘I understand on that property you bought, if you’re a homeowner you automatically qualify to become a member.’
“Dr. Hubbard had told me someone would try to stop me from getting a membership, but Mayor Wiggins made a phone call and I was in. I went out there on the first Saturday and was about to tee up when three guys pulled up on a golf cart. I didn’t know what to expect, and they said, ‘You’re not playing by yourself are you?’ When I said I was, they said, ‘No, come play with us.’ So, even with the challenges here, Albany’s always been good for me.”
After forging a distinguished medical career, a contented Adams had pretty much settled on easing into retirement when, in 2004, some sort of divine intervention interrupted his tranquility.
‘GET MY PEOPLE …’
“This is going to shock you, and you may not believe it,” he said. “But I promise you in 2004 I woke up at 4 o’clock one morning and went to the bathroom. I was just standing there, and a voice came to me and said, ‘Get my people together … run for mayor.’ I just laughed and went back to bed. I’d never been into politics and had no political plans.
“The next night, the same thing. Four in the morning, standing alone in the bathroom, same voice: ‘Get my people together … run for mayor.’ I started enumerating all the physical things I had — my home, my truck, my farm, money in the bank — and this voice came back to me and said, ‘Why do you think I gave you those things?’”
Adams went the next day to talk with veteran Albany politician George Brown with the intent of convincing Brown he should run for mayor.
“George said, ‘No, Willie, I’m not going to run, but I’m going to support your run,’” Adams said. “I tried my best to get away from that, but suddenly everything started falling into place. And running for mayor became the easiest thing I’d ever done in my life.”
Presumed frontrunner James Bush, who’d all but assured citizens he would run for the office, was called to the pulpit. Former City Commissioner Henry Mathis, another possible candidate, became embroiled in legal troubles. And donations came in from all over the country, from former colleagues and friends who were excited by Adams’ decision.
Adams defeated incumbent Tommy Coleman for the mayor’s office, then four years later held off the challenge of former City Commissioner Bo Dorough to retain his seat. He stepped down two years ago in favor of Dorothy Hubbard, who’d served on the Albany City Commission during Adams’ tenure as mayor.
“I wish I could have gotten a better handle on the Water, Gas & Light situation while I was in office, but there was an organizational culture in place that was impossible to break through at that time,” Adams said of the showdown with Albany’s utility authority, which has since officially become a department of the city government. “I think we laid the groundwork for that transition, though.
“Getting the commission to split the MEAG money (an estimated $90 million returned as credits to WG&L) into thirds was, I think, important. I also take pride in helping select top staff like Alfred Lott and James Taylor, military men whose honesty was never questioned. They deserve a lot of credit for helping create a philosophy of diversity by hiring and promoting personnel based on job performance, not what you look like.”
Adams lists a number of significant accomplishments that came during his eight-year mayoral tenure: improved ISO ratings and insurance rates, infrastructure upgrades, improved relationship with neighboring Lee County, plans that led to construction of a senior center in the city.
“I’m a firm believer in term limits,” the former mayor said as he polished off a plate of Jo’s ox tails. “I served my eight years and moved out of the way for the next person. I’ve told Mayor Hubbard that I’ll always be there if she needs me, but until she calls I stay out of the way.
“I don’t work as much as I used to, but I still stay pretty busy. I believe you have to have something meaningful to do to wake up for in the morning. Look, a fellow can only play so much golf.”