She embraced community activism with the same zeal she had demonstrated in teaching, continuing to show former students and others that supporting and improving one’s community is essential for progress and success
Educator, community leader. Adams was born on June 27, 1917, the eighth of ten children born to James and Mary Lou Phelps. She grew up in the community of Wheeler Hill in Columbia, South Carolina. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1934. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Allen University in 1938 and a master’s degree from South Carolina State University in 1953. On December 27, 1947 she married David King Adams, Jr. They had one daughter, Mary Suzette.
Adams taught third grade at Booker T. Washington Heights Elementary School in Columbia (renamed Sarah Nance Elementary and now called Watkins–Nance Elementary) until 1943. She then taught English and social studies at Booker T. Washington High School. Adams later served as guidance counselor, assistant principal, and acting principal until the school closed in 1974. She then served as assistant principal at the by-then- integrated A.C. Flora High School until her retirement in 1979.
Devoted to preparing her students for future success, Adams pointed out inequalities and encouraged students to intellectually prepare for a better day and to overcome those disadvantages presented by the racial segregation and discrimination that they faced. When Adams was four, her father died. When her mother was pregnant with a tenth child, Adams’ oldest brother and his wife died within eleven months of each other, and her mother moved the couple’s four orphaned children into the household. Adams reminded students that “no one can tell me about being poor”; she did not want them to allow their poverty to hold them back.
Adams taught the value of cooperation and responsibility to the larger community, in part through her own daily behavior. After retirement, Adams continued the struggle for equality for others. She embraced community activism with the same zeal she had demonstrated in teaching, continuing to show former students and others that supporting and improving one’s community is essential for progress and success. In the late 1970s she was directly involved with programs and campaigns that resulted in the election of the first three African American members to the Richland School District One Board of Commissioners, resulting in a racially mixed board for the first time in its ninety-six-year history.
A lifetime member of St. James AME Church, Adams received numerous awards, including the Human Relations Award from the Richland County Education Association, the South Carolina Education Association, and the National Education Association. She was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame and the Richland One Hall of Fame. In 2008, the University of South Carolina Education Museum pavilion unveiled a commemorative bench in her honor. In 2010 Adams was an inductee into the Bell South’s South Carolina American history calendar. She was a founder of the Palmetto Cemetery Association and served as a director of the Wheeler Hill Neighborhood Association. Adams was a member of the NAACP, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and the University of South Carolina President’s Community Advisory Committee. At the age ninety-five, Adams bagged groceries for the elderly for the Senior Volunteer Food Co-Op Program. She died
May 31, 2016 and in her honor on June of 2016 a SC House Resolution was passed.
Fannie Phelps Adams, interview by author, June 2, 2009.
Anthony L. Edwards, “Booker T. Washington High School (1916–1974): Voices of Remembrance” (PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 1994).
Spruill, Marjorie Julian, Valinda W. Littlefield, and Joan Maria Johnson. South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 3. (UGA Press, 2012).