AFRO Tuesday 05-10-2016

In the United States of America, everyone loves a rags to riches story, a tale of triumph over adversity. Longtime Baltimore journalist, and former editor of the AFRO, Mark Cheshire pens the biography of William “Little Willie” Adams, one of Charm City’s most infamous figures. The book, “They Call Me Little Willie” chronicles Adams’ journey from adolescent sharecropper to numbers runner to political power.

Cheshire digs deep and follows the paper trail of Adam’s adulthood through archives of newspapers which includes the AFRO and the Baltimore Sun. Cheshire also shakes the Adams family tree and finds individuals that refute or verify stories tracing back to Adams’ childhood in Zebulon, N.C.

Raised by his sharecropper grandparents, Adams’ enterprising mindset led him north to Baltimore. Adams used his savvy and mathematical skills to become a player in Baltimore’s underground numbers racket, eventually rising from runner to banker at a time when there were few people of color with the funds to run a numbers operation. An entrepreneur in the truest sense, Adams turned his illegal fortunes into lucrative Black-owned businesses as people of color fought for integration and opportunity.

Adams fought for the rights of African-Americans during the height of the Civil Rights Era while simultaneously expanding Baltimore’s Black economy. Adams established upscale clubs, clothing boutiques and businesses while fighting to integrate Baltimore’s golf courses.

From near-death brushes with the Philadelphia Mob, to defeating the State of Maryland in The Supreme Court, Cheshire goes into painstaking detail in telling Adams’ story.

Despite spending several chapters reporting Adams’ 1951 indictment for organized crime and subsequent 1954 conviction overturn, Cheshire does not get bogged down in legalese.

Adams eventually invested his efforts and money into businesses and politics, backing companies such as Parks Sausage Co. and former mayor William Donald Schafer. Parks Sausage Co. was one of the first Black businesses to go public on Wall Street.

Cheshire works to quell the theories that Adams was just an illegal hustler, shining a light on his quiet philanthropy and business acumen. These acts range from establishing scholarship programs to giving money to strangers to fund their ideas.

Adams’ friendship with legendary boxing champion Joe Louis is also documented, from first encounter to golfing with baseball legend Jackie Robinson to Adams investing in a soft drink for Louis (Joe Louis Punch).

The accomplishments of Adams are chronicled fluidly and told in the context of their turbulent times. From the mid -1930’s through the 1970’s, Adams thrived in multiple fields, despite tremendous adversity. While he dropped out of school to become a sharecropper, Adams earned a high school diploma while balancing the numbers racket and several business ventures.

Cheshire details the opposition forces Adams faced, from Baltimore Police to politicians.

Most importantly, Cheshire examines the true power that Adams possessed. From a bike repairman to one of the most respected political figures of his time, Adams was known from the lower to the upper class.

They Call Me Little Willie is short but sweet, breaking the narrative that Adams was just a gangster. Reading the book it’s hard to believe he was a gangster at all, but rather an optimist who jumped at opportunities and saw potential where others did not. Cheshire puts into perspective not only the strides Adams made for himself, but his help in advancing Baltimore as a whole. The book is a master class on the evolution of Baltimore and the trials and tribulations of a major figure in his quest to help himself and others.

For those that grew up in the times of Adams reign in the streets or politics, this book will be a great refresher as well as a learning tool. For the younger generation, it’s an inspiring look at someone who controlled his destiny and succeeded.