When 102-year-old Charlotte Adams died in July 2005, she was remembered as "Chapel Hill's most tireless -- and most dlightful -- crusader." Her work spanned nearly 70 year and was all the more remarkable considering that with each decade, "she was as old as the decade."
In 1997, N&O writer Dave Hart wrote a profile of the then-95-year-old Adams.
Adams was born in Tennessee as Charlotte Garth, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She wanted to become a medical missionary and moved to Chapel Hill in 1927 to earn her pre-med degree.
Helping a fellow student serve refreshments to the English club one day - "That used to be what women did, serve refreshments, " she says - she met Raymond Adams, a graduate student in English literature.
"Well, Robert Frost used to come here every spring to read poetry, and Mr. Adams asked me if I wanted to go with him to hear Robert Frost. I said, 'I'm not an English scholar.' He said, 'Everybody who speaks English ought to go.' So I went."
She and Adams were married later that year and remained married for 60 years, until Raymond's death in 1987. He was a passionate scholar of Henry David Thoreau; Adams still has an arrowhead once owned by Thoreau that was given to them by a biographer of the great Transcendentalist, and she maintains Raymond's extensive library of Thoreau's early-editions.
In 1935, Dorothy Detzer, secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, spoke at UNC. Adams, who by then had become a Quaker and begun to admire Thoreau's philosophy of pacifism and civil disobedience, attended the speech. Inspired, she helped begin the local branch of the organization.
"We had a good group, but in 1941 they all fell away, " Adams said. "Peace and freedom were not on people's minds in '41 through '45. But there were six of us here in Chapel Hill who stuck with it and kept it alive. We urged the president, FDR - you've heard of FDR? - to move toward peace."
After World War II, Adams and the league shifted their attention toward civil rights. It was a long and difficult struggle, but by 1960 the movement had begun to gather steam. Adams and other activists went to Greensboro to support the lunch-counter sit-ins there, and they brought the protest movement back to Chapel Hill with them, organizing sit-ins and marches.
"I remember one occasion when we had students marching up and down, protesting segregation, and I went to one restaurant manager and asked him if he would let the blacks come in and have a cup of coffee, " Adams said. "He said no. His black cook heard this and looked out and saw his minister there in the crowd. He said, 'You mean my minister can't have a cup of coffee?' The man said, 'That's right.' And the cook said, 'Then you don't have a cook anymore, ' and he walked out and joined us.
Retired law professor Dan Pollitt was among those on the picket lines with Adams. He recalled that even then her charm disarmed those she was working against.
"The movie houses wouldn't admit blacks, and when 'Porgy and Bess' came out, the English teacher at the black high school asked the theater manager if she could bring her class to see it, " Pollitt said. "He said no, and we began picketing both movie houses downtown. We did this for seven or eight months, around the clock, in shifts.
"And I remember that whenever it was cold and rainy, the manager would come out with an umbrella and walk with Charlotte, keeping her dry."
The vigils in front of the post office began in 1966 to protest the Vietnam War - "You've heard of Vietnam?" Charlotte asked - and continued until 1972. At the same time, Adams and two colleagues, Tan Schwab and Beth Okun, began monitoring the local court on Rosemary Street to try to ensure that justice was being dispensed to black defendants. The trio would sit in court from 9 a.m. until noon and then walk to the post office for the vigil.
Adams noticed that the court docket was slowed and clogged with many cases that ultimately failed to find resolution because the offended party dropped charges. Perhaps, she thought, there was a way to resolve these kinds of conflicts without tying up the legal system.
Out of this grew the Orange County Dispute Settlement Center, dedicated to peaceful, mediated conflict-resolution. It's been a terrific success.
"It's a marvelous thing, " Adams said. "So many squabbles can be worked out without going to court. You'd be amazed how many roommates get into scraps over telephone bills." -- The N&O 12/5/1997