At the end of his 97-year-old life, “Little Willie,” who made his initial fortune as a “Numbers” kingpin, illegal lottery proprietor, in Baltimore, was fêted in a Baltimore Sun obituary headlined “William Lloyd “Little Willie” Adams, Prominent Venture Capitalist.” This honor is in stark contrast to Adams’ detractors who preferred to recognize him as a notorious gangster holding court in West Baltimore.

In consideration of Black Business Month, the impact Little Willie Adams had on the development and expansion of African American entrepreneurship in Baltimore is unparalleled. By the time of his death, June 28, 2011, Adams, who arrived in Baltimore uneducated and penniless at age 15 in 1929 and at the  start of the Great Depression, amassed a personal worth potentially valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.

A Wikipedia citation estimates Little Willie’s net worth in the 1970’s at $40 million, equivalent to roughly $275 million today, a phenomenal accomplishment for a former teenaged sharecropper whose first job after arriving in Baltimore was working 55 hours per week at a waterfront rag shop for $6 a week. Born January 5, 1914, Willie Adams left his grandfather in Zebulon, North Carolina, population approximately 500, arriving at his aunt and uncle’s home on North Bond Street in 1929.

Ambitious and hardworking, Willie delivered newspapers, operated a shoeshine parlor and repaired bicycles. Recognizing Adams’ drive and aptitude, the bike repair shop owner, Johnny Wiggins, introduced Little Willie to The Six and Eight Company headed by George Goldberg, the dominant illegal numbers operator in East Baltimore. Proving himself a shrewd, well-organized operative, Willie graduated from running numbers to head his own numbers bank by 16-years-old.

He was still a juvenile when Little Willie Adams began to demonstrate his prowess as a “venture capitalist.” It would become clear later in his life that it was never Adams’ ambition to become a career “criminal.” At a time when Jim Crow prohibited African Americans from borrowing from banks, compounded by a national economic depression with a 50 – 60 percent Black unemployment rate, intellectually astute, enterprising Black men like Adams recognized the numbers game as a means to build an economy in Black inner cities where none otherwise existed.

In a 1979 newspaper interview Little Willie Adams explained that “I only used [the numbers] as a means to get into legitimate business.” Twenty-eight years earlier, 1951, testifying before the U.S. Senate Kefauver Committee, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, Adams was similarly matter-of-fact when he testified on Capitol Hill that he had retired from the illegal numbers business earlier that year, investing the proceeds into a range of legitimate businesses.

To gauge the status the U.S. government conferred upon Little Willie Adams as an organized crime power broker, consider the notorious Italian mafia chieftains summoned to appear before the tribunal besides Willie: Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo, Louis “Little New York” Campagna, Mickey Cohen, Willie Moretti, Frank Costello, and Meyer Lansky. Adams’ admission to Congress that he personally earned about $1,000 per day $12,600 per day in current money triggered an IRS investigation that convicted him of tax evasion. Adams appealed and prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not only was Little Willie Adams discreet and selective in his business dealings, he was also very low key in his friendships with high profile celebrities and the politically powerful. Willie was close friends and golfing buddies with former heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis, and the first Black player accepted into major league baseball, Jackie Robinson. Adams bankrolled and promoted a soft drink for his boxing pal called Joe Louis PUNCH SODA POP! which was not well-received.

However, among Little Willie Adams many successful business ventures financed with proceeds from his illegal numbers profits are several that older Baltimoreans might recognize: Little Willie’s Inn, Druid Hill Avenue and Whitelock Streets, 1935; Adams Realty Brokers, 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave, 1940; Carr’s Beach live entertainment resort, Annapolis, 1944; The Charm Centre, upscale women’s dresses, Pennsylvania Avenue, 1946; The Parks Sausage Company, 1951, co-owned with Henry G. Parks Jr. located at Park Circle; Super Fresh Supermarkets, 1970; A & R (Adams & Rodgers) Development Corp., co-owned with former Parks Sausage executive and current chairman and CEO Theo C. Rodgers, 1977. 

Adams owned many other Baltimore businesses including night clubs, bars, liquor stores and mortuaries.  Besides businesses that bore his name, Willie Adams bankrolled and co-owned many Black-owned Baltimore businesses in deals that were done anonymously. He also financed the campaigns of many local politicians and activists, fundraised for the NAACP and supported workers striking against employment discrimination. 

Regi Taylor
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