The Chatter

New Book Explores Extraordinary Life of Baltimore’s First Black City Councilwoman

Power of the Ballot chronicles life of civil rights leader Victorine Q. Adams.

Victorine Quille Adams married William “Little Willie” Adams in 1935, a decision, which by itself, would make her a noteworthy figure in city lore. Little Willie was—and forever will be—the most famous numbers runner, bookie, and illegal lottery operator in Baltimore history. He eventually turned those profits into legitimate capital, bankrolling local black startups, including Parks Sausages and Super Pride supermarkets, becoming a powerful force in city politics along the way.

It would be easy, particularly given the period, for Little Willie to overshadow his spouse. Not so, however, with Ms. Adams.

Graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, she studied education at Coppin State University and taught for 14 years. Along the way, she earned her social work degree from Morgan State and founded the Colored Women’s Democratic Campaign of Maryland in 1946 to increase the participation of black women in civic life. Together, she and her husband soon began helping black candidates win numerous key local and state offices, including Harry Cole to the state Senate in 1954, Verna Welcome to the state House in 1962, and Parren Mitchell to Congress in 1970.

In 1966, Adams won her own seat in the General Assembly, which she then left a year later for a seat on the Baltimore City Council—the first black woman ever to seize membership on the council. Her achievements there include helping bring a major Social Security Administration office building to West Baltimore and establishing the Baltimore Fuel Fund to assist with family heating bills in 1979. The project became a model for similar efforts in the state and the country.

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“She was a giant among civil rights leaders in Baltimore and nationally,” longtime Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, told The Sun after Adams, active in local affairs her entire life, passed in 2006 at 93.

With this backstory in mind, we asked Ida E. Jones, archivist at Morgan State University, and author of the just released book, Baltimore Civil Rights Leader Victorine Q. Adams: The Power of the Ballot, a few questions about Adams and the research into her life.

Reading the book, one word that comes to mind to describe Victorine is feminist. Do you feel black women, such as Victorine, have received the recognition they deserve in the pursuit of women’s equality—not to mention civil rights?

Yes, I believe she was a feminist. She did not allow discrimination to hinder her movements. In the 1990s, she stated “When the white political power structure did not listen to black people or when black politicians paid their women no mind, [I founded two organizations] to give black women some political power.” The work of the Colored Women’s Democratic Campaign Committee and Woman Power Incorporated focused on voter education and identifying potential African-American women candidates for elected office. Verda Welcome and Victorine both were able to benefit from the grass-root efforts of galvanizing the African-American community and later other women voters to the polls. They politely wrested power from the political brokers throughout Baltimore.

Tell us about Victorine’s relationship with Little Willie. They didn’t have children and seem devoted to each other. They also look like they spent a lot of time dining and dancing in the heyday of Pennsylvania Avenue with the likes of Billie Holiday.

The love affair between William L. Adams and Victorine Quille was endearing. From the book: “[T]heir love affair was one of mutual race pride and socioeconomic justice. Those lines of love and justice strengthened throughout their seventy-plus-year marriage.” Moreover, they enjoyed dancing and socializing with local couples, entertainers and professional athletes.”

How did she accommodate her Catholic faith, political activism, and his, well, sometimes extra-legal business operations?

From what I gather, his numbers racket was a steady source of income and a common method of wealth building done by marginalized people. Many European immigrants operated similar underground businesses which they over time morphed into financial empires of property, grocery stores, laundromats, restaurants, and other commercial entities needed within their community. She never questioned his business endeavors. In their marriage, she remained committed to her Catholic faith, yet Willie did not proclaim any particular faith tradition. She had her career and income and so did her husband.

He was raised in North Carolina to sharecropper parents, she was raised in West Baltimore to working-class parents—and both were obviously smart and ambitious. They found common ground in lifting up others in the black community, is that accurate?

Yes, racial uplift was a hallmark of their relationship and their overall generation. Those born between 1900-1920, had relatives who experienced the failure of radical Reconstruction and started migrating to better places to secure employment and better opportunities for their children. They children felt it was their duty to strive and attain an education, employment and stability through voting and participating in the democratic process.

You note there were 61 lynchings in the U.S. the year she was born. Did you get a sense there was a turning point for Victorine as a civil rights leader?

The wanton violence and micro-aggressions her generation encountered definitely contributed to a heightened racial awareness and group consciousness. Their knowing was not fearfulness but mindfulness in navigating the rugged terrain. Education, faith, and patriotism were essential components in respectability regardless of the ugliness of racism. Victorine knew this and lived it out daily.

What do you think were her most significant achievements?

There are many, however, the top three would be the Colored Women’s Democratic Campaign Committee; Election to the Baltimore City Council; and the Baltimore Fuel Fund. The CWDCC employed her teaching skills outside of the classroom to empower African-American women—as community influencers—to coordinate their franchise into a voting bloc for candidates that addressed their community needs.

The election to the Baltimore City Council allowed her to voice her concern for the voiceless living in the city. Poverty and underemployment displaced people who were being labeled criminal for non-payment of bills. The departure of industrial companies resulted financially fraught times. Councilwoman Adams advocated for the retooling and retraining of the workforce for other forms of employment.

Finally, the Baltimore Fuel Fund a public-private partnership that pooled financial resources to assist low income families in need of funds to pay utility bills. Victorine was moved to this idea after several fatal fires ravaged the homes of working class poor people using flammable alternatives to heating their homes.

Why this book now?

Why not! The serendipity of this book is it is out a year before the centennial of the 19th amendment. Her work in voter education is salient to the concerns about voter participation and access today.

The Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum will host Morgan State University Archivist Ida E. Jones, author of the just released book, “Baltimore Civil Rights Leader Victorine Q. Adams: The Power of the Ballot,” for a reading March 28 at 6 p.m. She will also be reading April 23 at the Robert M. Bell Center at Morgan State.