William Lloyd "Little Willie" Adams, who went from being a numbers runner on the streets of Baltimore to the city's first prominent African-American venture capitalist, bankrolling numerous black-owned businesses such as Parks Sausage and Super Pride supermarkets, died Monday from pneumonia at Roland Park Place.
He was 97 and had been in declining health in recent years.
"Little Willie was an institution in Baltimore. And as far as the black community was concerned, he brought black entrepreneurs into the formerly all-white business community," former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III said Tuesday. "He was also a political power in his own right and had a tremendous network."
"He certainly was a major force in the city and its politics and economic development," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
"For many years he was the most 'reliable bank' that African-Americans could go to in order to start and continue to operate businesses. For years, he was the lender," said Mr. Schmoke. "When I got into office, he was less of a power, but to the Harry B. Coles and the Mitchells [pioneering black officials], he was the indispensable power."
Adams, the son of a sharecropper, developed a wide network of business and political contacts across Baltimore. In addition to helping individual politicians, he supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and similar groups. His business interests included real estate, liquor stores, mortuaries, apartment buildings, beauty parlors and Metro Plaza, which adjoins Mondawmin Mall.
Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Edgar P. Silver had been friends with Mr. Adams and his late wife, Victorine Q. Adams, the first black woman on the City Council, for nearly 60 years.
"When it wasn't popular for African-Americans to deal with banks, he helped them out financially, and many owed their careers to him and they did well," said Judge Silver. "He helped an awful lot of people get what they wanted and the help they deserved."
Mr. Adams was born Jan. 5, 1914, in Zebulon, N.C., and arrived in Baltimore in 1929, when he moved in with an aunt and uncle on North Bond Street.
He attended Dunbar High School for a time. In 1935, he married the former Victorine Quille, who had been a city educator before entering politics.
Years later he attended night classes at Douglass High School, from which he earned a diploma in 1950. He later studied at the Cortez Peters Business School and took night courses at Morgan State University and the McCoy College at the Johns Hopkins University.
During the Depression it was difficult for an uneducated black man to find a job. He worked in a rag factory, delivered newspapers, repaired bicycles and operated a shoe shine parlor. He earned a reputation for shrewdness when it came to handling and saving money, virtues that would serve him well later in life.
At 16, he became a low-level runner for an illegal lottery operation.
"His was a life of incredible achievements that started when a numbers boss rejected slips he bicycled in supposedly late one day," said former Baltimore Sun reporter Antero Pietila, who interviewed Mr. Adams for his 2010 book, "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City."
"Since he had to cover those bets, Mr. Adams himself became a numbers boss. He was 16, an uneducated kid from North Carolina who had the smarts and good judgment to make a difference."
By the late 1930s, Mr. Adams was proprietor of Little Willie's Tavern at Druid Hill Avenue and Whitelock Street. The tavern was bombed in 1938, allegedly by Philadelphia gangsters, according to newspaper accounts at the time. They had tried to muscle in on his numbers business, demanding a 5 percent cut, and when Mr. Adams balked, they bombed his bar.
Mr. Adams' wealth was grounded in the illegal lotteries that he operated. He once boasted that he handled $1,000 a day — $8,000 in today's money — in illegal lottery operations, which in Baltimore were called the numbers.
"Every day hundreds of thousands bought betting slips at newsstands, barbershops, corner stores, and dry cleaners for as little as two cents, dreaming of a 'hit,'" wrote Mr. Pietila. "Pimlico Race Course results determined the winning three-number combinations. Adams gained a reputation as a man who always paid out."
After being subpoenaed in 1951 to testify at a closed-door hearing of the U.S. Senate's Kefauver Committee on organized crime, Mr. Adams explained that he had retired from the numbers business earlier that year.
In 1951, he was indicted by a grand jury in Baltimore in a numbers conspiracy and was convicted. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1954 on the basis that he had testified before the Senate committee under a grant of immunity and his testimony could not be used against him in any criminal court.