Franklin’s Fair by Lea Adams

          Dr. Franklin William Adams went to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the 1904 World’s Fair, sometime between May and November of that year in St. Louis, Missouri.  His attendance at that celebrated event is one of the few facts I know about the paternal grandfather I never met. 

          The late Dr. Adams made brief appearances in vivid, but rarely shared, anecdotes told by my father and his sister about their youth in Chicago in the Roaring ‘twenties.  I knew he was a revered patriarch whose sudden death in 1928 resulted from a heart infection following a minor surgical procedure he performed on a child.  I heard that he wore one of his two tuxedos when visiting the Savoy Ballroom, a place where cigarette girls strutted between tables, and customers enjoyed Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans jazz band.  There were a few faded photos, including one taken in Old Juarez, of him in a suit and bowler hat, leaning into an empty street.  The story was that F.W., as he was called, partnered with fellow doctors to build a clinic in Mexico, at the request of Pancho Villa.  Apparently the U.S. government frowned on the idea, and the plan was squelched when a decapitated head in a hat-box was delivered to a Mason’s meeting attended by grandfather Adams and several of the other physicians involved.  I don’t know if the gruesome story was true, but it was one of so few, that I recall it well.

           My grandfather was described as “a real man’s man,” active in community and social affairs within the growing world of highly educated, relatively prosperous American Negroes that included medical doctors, lawyers, successful business owners and their families.  A third degree Prince Hall Mason, he was a proud early member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American fraternity.  In August of 1927, he went to Detroit, Michigan for the 32nd Annual Session of the National Medical Association, where he wore a blue-ribbon badge identifying him as a member. 

          I knew little else about F.W. Adams or his short life.  To the extent that I thought about him, I pictured him seated at head of a massive dining room table in the Chicago Bronzetown home his widow Hattie remained in until her death in 1952.  At our dinner table, my parents hardly spoke of the exodus from Texas, although they were both born there.  They were toddlers when her family migrated from Brenham to Oakland, California and his from Fort Worth to Chicago.  The history of places my parents grew up tells me there was a lot not to talk about.


          Among hours of adolescence I spent slouched with popcorn in the dark, eavesdropping on other people’s lives, was a huge ninety minutes where a nearly-innocent, 20-something Elizabeth Taylor shared the big screen with dashing Rock Hudson, ferally handsome James Dean, and a gushing well that magically turned dirt farmers into millionaires.  Between “Giant” and the TV cowboy movies I loved, I saw Texas as the exciting, romantic West, where tough but gentle men in ten-gallon hats protected side-saddle-riding girls with perfect hair and teeth from the bad guys.  The South conjured up a very different, distasteful version of our nation’s history: Mississippi, Alabama, even Virginia.  In my mind, Texas could not be the South. 

          In the early 1990s, I decided to visit my ancestral homeland.  A once-thriving town founded in 1848 near the northeast corner of the state, Corsicana had slipped into obscurity, its place on the map reflected largely by Deluxe Fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery.  I half expected to stumble, Hollywood-style, across the crumbling remains of the ranch, also on Collin Street, where Franklin’s father Frank Adams raised cattle, horses and four children, including the older son who became my father’s father.  I hoped to find a vestige of my home on the range, the American dream left behind by a young doctor seeking the bright lights of the big city. 

          I took with me my grandparents’ nineteenth century diplomas from the Colored Normal School of Corsicana, and other documents and artifacts I thought would be more secure and more widely appreciated in the library there.   My pride of ancestry was daunted when the Genealogy section of the Corsicana Library refused to accept my donation of materials that pointed to a once thriving community of educated African Americans.  The librarian apologized, “These things would probably be vandalized; I’m sorry to say Texas hasn’t changed that much since your grandfather’s time.”   Choked by a humiliation I could not swallow and anger I could not express, I left carrying what had suddenly become just a roll of old papers and a box of unwanted trinkets. 

          I returned home feeling “‘buked and scorned,” but with my sharply honed skill for dis-remembering intact.  For the next few years, cloaking shame in denial, I continued to romanticize my family’s flight from Texas.  Dreamy images of pioneer hospitality in the Old West were easier to embrace than the unspeakable reality of my family’s roots in a place run by small-minded, violent Southerners determined to keep the spirit of the Confederacy alive and descendants of African slaves in a corner of history as dimly lit as the tight quarters of a ship lunging through the Middle Passage to the New World. 

          Still, I was haunted by stories I had been taught to keep to myself: My mother talked reluctantly about her father, hidden under hay on a buckboard headed for the safety of the border, after refusing to cede his place in a Brenham Post Office line to a white man.  Daddy’s sister Elinor spoke of her grandfather Frank Adams trading his business, bank accounts, livestock, and land for a job carrying bags in the Corsicana train depot, instead of a place as a prosperous Black businessman at the end of a noose thrown over a nearby tree by his resentful White neighbors. 


          Tucked away in the back of a china cabinet in the Washington DC home where I grew up, nearly hidden by the stack of Rose Medallion china plates collected and left to me by my Aunt Elinor, was a “Ruby Flash” glass souvenir cup with “St. Louis World’s Fair 1904” etched in script on one side, and “Dr. F. W. Adams” on the other.  For years, it evoked a strange concoction of memory laced with imagination, set to a sound track in which young Judy Garland croons “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” as a fountain of electric lights ushers in the modern world, overshadowing the pre-scientific past forever.  After my trip to Texas, the cup began to speak to me differently, as evidence of other untold stories, secreted away in a silent yet turbulent sliver of history. 

         The deaths of my father in 1970 and my beloved Aunt Elinor seven years later brought grieving for people who were important to me, and a sense that I had lost the roots of my Adams family tree.  F.W.’s safe, rich with family records, was thoughtlessly emptied and its contents destroyed by an attorney preparing for an estate sale. The elders were gone, and I was afraid I hadn’t asked enough questions to pass along for the future.  My interest in genealogy and family history was forged by that loss. 

          With a chagrin shared by historians, social scientists, and family researchers throughout the world, I discovered that a vital generation of American history was gone forever, destroyed with the U.S. Census of 1890.  I learned to rely on a combination of hard evidence and oral history, and some less scientific, but uncannily accurate research tools — dreams and deja vu, emails from strangers, unexpected answers to as yet unformed questions — to reconstruct details from long departed lives.

          “Hidden From History” provided part of the filler for Franklin Adams’ adult professional life, the majority of which was spent in Fort Worth.  The project was created by Shirley Apley, then Senior Librarian at the Fort Worth Public Library, who was initially researching a meningitis epidemic that killed hundreds of residents in the late 19th century, and Dr. John H. Conley, who treated scores of men, women and children before succumbing to the disease himself in 1900.  More than a century after his death, Ms. Apley dreamed that she was walking beside Dr. Conley on his rounds, when “he turned to me and said, ‘You know there are more of us.  You need to find us.’”  She refocused her research on 41 African-American doctors, dentists and pharmacists who practiced in Fort Worth between 1887 and 1920, and have been “hidden in history.”  I was one of many descendants she found and contacted.  Her work places Franklin William Adams in a new light, not as a mysterious dead grandfather, frozen in faded photographs, but as a man who contributed most of his adult professional life to providing health care for early 20th Century denizens of Fort Worth.  Ms. Apley’s work inspired me to reexamine my grandfather’s life under a less emotional lens of history, polished by internet resources and scholarly research of the people, places and events that touched his life.


          Most of what I know is from the US Censuses of 1870, 1880 and 1900.  Franklin William Adams was born in Corsicana, Texas in 1880, the older son and third child of a couple who migrated there from Louisiana in the early 1870s, in search of what they thought would be freedom and a better life in Texas.  His parents, Frank and Mollie (nee Buchez, misspelled “Busha”) were Louisiana natives, born in the decade before the Civil War to women of color and the White men who fathered, but did not claim their children. 

          The extended family, all identified as “Mulatto,” in 1800 included six adults — Frank Sr. and Mollie, her mother, her two younger sisters and one brother — and three children: newborn Franklin and his sisters,  7-year-old Susan and 5-year-old Mylie.  The census lists what may have been a small “red light” business — seven unrelated young White women with “no occupation” and an older Black woman identified as a laundress — an unsavory but probably lucrative side business for the young cattleman and the large family he supported.  In 1883 Mollie died giving birth to Viyella and her widower followed the tradition of the time, marrying Mollie’s sister Cornelia, who died soon thereafter.  Franklin and Viyella were raised by their stepmother, Josie. 

          The Adamses were part of a large, active African American community of Blacks and Mulattos, some born free, others recently emancipated, mostly farmers, laborers and servants.  Clustered on Mulberry, Beaton and Collin Streets, or scattered among the homes in which they were employed, they made up nearly a fourth of the population of Corsicana city.  The brothers attended the Colored Normal School where their older sisters taught, and the church where Franklin met Hattie, the youngest of an unrelated Adams clan, originally from Greenville, Alabama.  The family prospered, as Frank senior’s teams pulled flat-bed drays that transported rigs and other heavy equipment needed when oil was in discovered in Corsicana in 1894, and later at the nearby Powell oil field.  But then, it became dangerous for a person of color to do well in Texas. 

          Corsicana remained true to the spirit of the Confederacy, proud of their secessionist history, and absolute in their belief that Blacks and Mulattos should serve in silence and stay in their place.  In a 1991 interview, Josie’s nephew John Hughes (then 90 years old), who lived with the family in his youth, said:  “We learned to go along to get along. White folk didn’t like uppity Negroes.  When the old man sent his son off to medical school, he knew young Frank could never come back to Corsicana.” 

          When her older siblings learned that Frank Adams was going to Meharry Medical School, they wisely pooled their resources and sent Hattie to Fisk.  Both schools were in Nashville.  Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, the couple returned from Tennessee to Corsicana long enough to marry and pack for the move to Fort Worth.  Although Hattie went back to Corsicana several times to visit her family, Dr. Franklin Adams never returned to the city of his birth, not even to bury his father and brother. 

         For a dozen years, Dr. and Mrs. Adams made a home for themselves and their young family at 1221 East Annie Street.  Then, like many of his well educated African American peers, he moved his family and his practice to the relative safety of a town at the northern end of the Mississippi River, “sweet home, Chicago,” where he died just 14 short years after leaving Texas.


          In my mind’s eye, I picture the tall, handsome, impeccably tailored Dr. Adams at age 24, strolling the broad vistas of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition with visitors from all over the world.  Like each of them, he has payed 50 cents to roam through 1,200 acres of exhibits from 50 countries.  It is the advent of a new century defined by science, art and industry; but also by myths about humanity that support the unfettered marketing of conquest and colonialism. 

          With its “living displays” of “primitives” native to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, the Fair reflected the blatant racism and U.S. imperialism espoused by its organizers, who boldly promoted the rightful supremacy of a privileged “white” race.  Fair-goers could be entertained by Japanese Geishas; scared by Philippine head-hunters; pan for gold in an Eskimo Village set in artificial icebergs; gawk at the 80-year-old U.S. prisoner of war, Geronimo, afforded a special government dispensation to sell his autograph while singing Apache war songs; or at the filed teeth of the “savage pygmy cannibal” Ota Benga, who was moved after the fair to a cage at the Bronx Zoo, where he was exhibited with monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees in a display on evolution.

          Impressed by the presentations of science and technology changing his world and promising untold opportunities for the future,  Franklin is also horrified by men, women and children being presented as separate, less than human, by people who attribute their own power and privilege to something as serendipitous as complexion.  He is apprehensive about what that future may hold for his family and others whose faces bear witness to unspoken, unwelcome truths about America’s real heritage. 

          No one seeing him at the Fair would have guessed at the troubling observations or the unspoken fears of the stately, blue-eyed, Cowtown doctor.  They would not have suspected that the fair-skinned youth was the grandson of slaves, descended from survivors of a holocaust whose perpetrators had deprived his African ancestors of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as surely as their descendants stole those blessings from Geronimo and Ota Benga.  To those who waited next to him as the vendor wrote their names on cranberry colored glass, Dr. Adams was just another tourist.

          In my mind’s eye, the sun dims over St. Louis, and hundreds of bulbs illuminate the Fair grounds, diluting the darkness with the powerful security of artificial light for the first time, and forever.  A new day is dawning.  History is still being drawn in pencil, but soon broadly inked strokes will outline some truths, some myths and some missing pieces of the complex American puzzle.  Many of the pieces are gone forever — stamped out by intent or absent-mindedness — but others may yet be retrieved.  As we bridge the chasm between yesterday and tomorrow, perhaps we can fill in more of the hidden and empty places in our history with vibrant colors that illustrate who we really are.

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