Local descendent of Thomas Jefferson talks being black at OU in the 50s

Ada Adams was refused service at some Uptown restaurants. She was not allowed to complete her student teaching in Athens County. She was unable to join Ohio University social sororities and fraternities.

All because of the color of her skin.

“The northern states had de facto segregation, but not to the extent of Southern states,” Adams, 77, said. “Going to OU, they had issues with equality and that some professors may not have the same attitudes towards blacks as they did towards white, but we were given a shot at a fair education.”

A 1961 graduate, Adams grew up in Nelsonville and began her education at OU in 1957, studying physical education. Her boyfriend at the time, who later became her husband, was Alvin C. Adams, a Morgan County native and, in 1959, the first black man to graduate from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

“A professor once told him he was grading him harder than the white students because he would have a hard time in life getting a job in the profession of newspaper reporting,” she said of her late husband.

In order to complete her education, Adams was required to student-teach, but she said OU had an agreement with local schools that no black students would be sent to teach.

“It turned out to be a blessing because after graduating from college I knew I couldn’t get a job in the Athens area,” she said of her experience in Cleveland, where she had to go to complete her student teaching. “I knew I had to go to a big city.”

Following their marriage in 1960, the couple moved to Chicago because Alvin could not land a reporting job in Athens County. He started at The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, but soon after began writing for Jet Magazine, a weekly targeted toward African-American readers. He spent much of his time covering the civil rights movement while Ada taught at a middle school.

“He became interested in becoming more than a reporter,” Adams said. “He wanted to become an active participant, and I also wanted to become an active participant.”

The two took a leave from their jobs to help organize and assist in furthering the efforts of the civil rights movement. They spent most of their time registering people to vote and transporting speakers to and from Southern cities.

“It was a very enlightening experience,” she said. “We got to meet some wonderful people. … We stayed with a family whose house had been shot into. The bullets barely missed the people staying in the bed we were sleeping in because they tried to register to go to college in Mississippi.”

Kalila Bell, a junior studying journalism, said that a few weeks ago, Adams came to speak to her class about her involvement in the civil rights movement. Bell, the future president of the Black Student Communication Caucus, described the experience as “amazing.”

“It was very interesting seeing that she is a Nelsonville native,” Bell said. “It’s inspiring to see she got involved in a movement rooted in the Deep South. … The courage she had to involve herself in that is amazing.”

Following their work with the civil rights movement and their retirement, the Adamses moved back to southeastern Ohio in 1999.

“I had a sense of place,” Adams said. “This was my home. My family had been here for years. … We both felt we could come back and give back to the community something we didn’t necessarily get when we were here. There were people who were kind and generous to us who were white. We wanted to give back to the university and the community.”

The two also wanted to return to research their genealogy. After an extensive period of time, Ada was able to confirm her ties to founding father Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.

“Genealogy is how I found out about it,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in my family dynamics. As a kid, I always wondered why some people in my family had darker skin than others.”

She said through research conducted at various libraries, historic centers and courts, she was able to come up with documentation of her relations to Jefferson and Hemings. She said she has visited Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home, to celebrate and honor descendants of the union.

“The joy came like finding a jigsaw puzzle that connected you,” she said. “The puzzle’s not complete by any means. … The joy didn’t come in knowing I was connected to a president, the joy came from knowing I was connected to a strong family (the Hemings) to beat all odds to survive an institution that was dehumanizing and separated families.”

Following her husband’s death in 2004, Ada was pleased to hear the university would be honoring his memory by naming Adams Hall on South Green after him in 2007.

“Even today, I’m just in awe of the fact that there’s a building sitting on campus named in Alvin’s honor,” she said. “It’s representative of how the university has come full circle in recognizing how blacks are integral to the university and to the community.”

Jasmine Lambert, a senior studying political science and journalism, met Ada at an event co-sponsored by Ohio University’s Association of Black Journalists, an organization of which she was the president. Lambert said Adams is a “super sweet lady” whose presence at the university is inspirational.

“Her husband paved the way,” Lambert said. “It inspires the black community and all communities to keep working hard. If he can do it, we can do it. We can graduate and have a successful career in journalism or whatever we want to do.”

Adams said she plans on continuing her involvement with the students at OU.

“One of the things I’ve found in life through all the negativity, there are always good-willed people," she said. "Athens had a lot of white people who did not judge you by the color of your skin. I was blessed that way.”

Originally published for The Post on March 19, 2017.