John Quincy Adams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Henry Adams, a prominent minister and educator, and Margaret Corbin. Both his parents were free persons of color. Following private schooling in Wisconsin and Ohio, Adams graduated from Oberlin College. After a brief teaching stint in Louisville, in 1870 he followed his uncle, Joseph C. Corbin, to work in Arkansas in the Reconstruction. By 1874 he had risen from schoolteacher to assistant superintendent of public instruction. His lifelong activism in the Republican Party began in Arkansas; there he twice served as...
John Quincy Adams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Henry Adams, a prominent minister and educator, and Margaret Corbin. Both his parents were free persons of color. Following private schooling in Wisconsin and Ohio, Adams graduated from Oberlin College. After a brief teaching stint in Louisville, in 1870 he followed his uncle, Joseph C. Corbin, to work in Arkansas in the Reconstruction. By 1874 he had risen from schoolteacher to assistant superintendent of public instruction. His lifelong activism in the Republican Party began in Arkansas; there he twice served as secretary to Republican state conventions, was elected as justice of the peace on the party ticket, and held the offices of engrossing clerk of the state senate and deputy commissioner of public works. The defeat of the Arkansas Republican Party in 1874 and the racial repression that followed led Adams to return to Louisville, where he again engaged in teaching.Adams entered journalism in 1879 when he and his brother, Cyrus Field Adams, established the Louisville Bulletin, a weekly newspaper that served the Louisville African-American community until 1885, when it was subsumed by the American Baptist. In 1880 Adams helped organize the National Afro-American Press Association, which held its first annual meeting in Louisville that year. The organization elected him as its first president, and he served from 1880 to 1882.In 1886 Adams accepted an offer to join the staff of the St. Paul, Minnesota, Western Appeal, a black-owned weekly. Within a year he assumed the editorship and incorporated the Northwestern Publishing Company, which supported the expansion of the newspaper to include offices in Chicago, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. The Western Appeal prospered under his leadership; it was one of only nine African-American newspapers established in the 1880s that survived until 1914. Its editorials consistently attacked racial discrimination and called for equal treatment both locally and nationally.In 1887 Adams helped organize resistance to racial discrimination in public accommodations and in the workplace in Minnesota through the establishment of the Minnesota Pro-tective and Industrial League, and its successor, the Afro-American League of St. Paul, in 1889. He worked with T. Thomas Fortune to found the National Afro-American League in 1890, serving on its first executive committee. The Afro-American Council, dominated by Booker T. Washington's accommodationist “Tuskegee machine,” received his initial support in 1898. By 1903 the hostility of the council to civil rights activism in the North alienated Adams. Although he was not a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he endorsed it by 1913 and finally broke with Tuskegee accommodationism. His editorials and civic activity continued to attack racial discrimination for the remainder of his life.The other constant in Adams's public life was loyalty to the Republican Party. The Appeal consistently endorsed Republican candidates even as the party moved toward the establishment of a “lily-white” southern branch. Only President Warren G. Harding's acquiescence to segregation and Lynching finally led Adams to question publicly his lifelong Republicanism.Adams's influence peaked in the decade surrounding the turn of the century. By 1913 the Appeal had closed its offices in Dallas, St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago, and Washington and had shrunk to a local weekly. The paper and its editor remained influential in St. Paul, however, until his death. Adams was struck and killed by an automobile in St. Paul. He was survived by his wife, Ella B. Smith, whom he had married in 1892; the couple had four children.Even as he spent his life fighting the increasing racism of the Gilded Age, Adams illustrated the possibilities that came for some African Americans in the emancipation era. His creation of a newspaper with offices in six major cities, his leadership among African American journalists, and his advocacy of civil rights earned him a national reputation by 1900. He epitomized the African American middle class of the urban North. Light enough in complexion to pass for white, he edited a “race journal” dependent on the African-American community for whose civil rights he fought.
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