John H. Adams (ca. 1848–1934)


John H. Adams served six years in Richmond‘s government representing Jackson Ward, two years on the city council and four years as an alderman. Adams hailed from a successful free black family, and received a bachelor’s degree from a Pennsylvania college in 1873. A plasterer by trade, he became involved with the African American religious and spiritual community. He helped his neighborhood, created as a gerrymandered constituency to limit black political power, improve its schools, streets, and lighting. Adams moved to Danville in the 1890s, but retired about 1930 and returned to Richmond, where he died at the home of a niece in 1934.

Ebenezer Baptist Church

John Henry Adams was born around 1848 at 227 West Leigh Street in Richmond, the younger of two sons and second of four children of John Adams and Octavia Jackson Adams. His father was a contractor and plasterer, one of fifteen free blacks in Virginia who had accumulated at least $4,000 in property by 1860. The senior Adams owned thirteen houses and lots in that year and bought eight more by 1871, making him Richmond’s leading African American real estate holder. When he died in 1873 his estate was reportedly worth about $40,000. Adams’s father had at least a basic education and an excellent reputation. He took a leading role in the First African and Ebenezer Baptist Churches in Richmond, interested himself in the colonization movement, and served after the war as an officer in black labor unions.

John H. Adams matriculated in 1869 at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and received an AB in 1873. He became a plasterer and was active in several of Richmond’s black organizations. On July 26, 1876, he married Anna Boyd. Their two sons both died in infancy and she died on May 29, 1879.

Richmond's Jackson Ward

Adams is best known for his involvement in the politics of Richmond’s Jackson Ward, gerrymandered by conservative whites in 1871 so as to concentrate African American voters into one district and thereby limit the number of city council members they could elect at one time. Adams was one of thirty-three African American Republicans who represented the ward on the Richmond City Council between 1871 and 1898. His tenure in office coincided with the peak of black political power in post-Reconstruction Richmond. Elected to the common council for a two-year term in 1882, Adams was one of only six blacks appointed to the school committee during this period. With his colleagues, as a councillor and subsequently as an alderman (1884–1888), he won improvements in neighborhood schools, streets, and lighting, but he failed to gain a park, an armory, and other goals of ward residents.

Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans in Richmond

Adams was part of the city’s black elite and one of the pioneer political leaders whose successes and failures epitomized the biracial politics of the late nineteenth century and anticipated the political struggles of African Americans in the twentieth century. Like his father, Adams was active in the Ebenezer Church and was one of five delegates from the congregation to a council of Richmond’s black Baptist churches that met in 1881 to settle a controversy within the First African Baptist Church. Adams was also a trustee of the city’s Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans.

On November 19, 1895, Adams married a young widow, Letitia Banister, of Danville. The register described him as a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, and they may have resided there for a time before settling in Danville, where Adams worked as a plasterer for the Charles Orchard Company. Of their two children, only a son survived childhood. Adams retired about 1930 and returned to Richmond. He died in the Richmond home of a niece on March 5, 1934, and was buried in Richmond’s Evergreen Cemetery.

ca. 1848
John H. Adams is born in Richmond. His parents are John Adams and Octavia Jackson Adams, both free blacks.
John Adams, of Richmond, is one of fifteen free blacks in Virginia who has accumulated at least $4,000 in property.
John H. Adams matriculates at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
By this year, John Adams owns twenty-one houses and lots, making him Richmond's leading African American real estate holder.
John H. Adams receives an AB degree from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
John Adams dies, leaving an estate reportedly worth about $40,000.
July 26, 1876
John H. Adams marries Anna Boyd. They will have two sons, both of whom die in infancy.
May 29, 1879
Anna Boyd Adams, wife of John H. Adams, dies.
John H. Adams is one of five delegates from the Ebenezer Church in Richmond to a council of Richmond's black Baptist churches that meets to settle a controversy within the First African Baptist Church.
John H. Adams, a Republican, is elected to the Richmond City Council for a two-year term representing Jackson Ward. He is one of only six blacks appointed to the school committee.
John H. Adams, a Republican, serves as an alderman on the Richmond City Council, representing Jackson Ward.
November 19, 1895
John H. Adams marries a young widow, Letitia Banister, of Danville. They will have two children, one of whom will survive childhood. Adams works as a plasterer in Danville.
ca. 1930
John H. Adams retires as a plasterer in Danville and returns to Richmond.
March 5, 1934
John H. Adams dies in the Richmond home of a niece. He is buried in Richmond's Evergreen Cemetery.
  • Chesson, Michael B. “Adams, John Henry. ” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 28–29. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
  • Chesson, Michael B. “Richmond’s Black Councilmen, 1871–1896.” In Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz, 191–222. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • O’Brien, John T. “Factory, Church, and Community: Blacks in Antebellum Richmond.” Journal of Southern History 44, no. 4 (November 1978): 509–536.
  • Rachleff, Peter J. Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.
APA Citation:
Chesson, Michael & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John H. Adams (ca. 1848–1934). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/adams-john-h-ca-1848-1934.
MLA Citation:
Chesson, Michael, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John H. Adams (ca. 1848–1934)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.