Local civil rights icon Harvey Adams dies at 80

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On his way to serve in the Korean War, Harvey Adams and a White companion were returning to Ft. Benning, Ga. and were so engrossed in swapping stories that they boarded the White section of the train. The conductor told Adams, “Boy, you’ll have to go to the back.”

Adams’ friend said, “We’re not going anywhere.” To avoid trouble, Adams backed down. It was the last time he ever did.

HarveyAdamsJr
HARVEY ADAMS JR.

“He never spoke to me again. I lost a friend over cowardice,” said Adams. “It’s lessons like that that haunts you the rest of your life.”

Adams, a civil rights pioneer who survived Korea, diabetes, the 1968 riots in the Hill District and who helped integrate the Pittsburgh police force, died Sept. 7 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 80.

After leaving the service, Adams got an undergraduate degree and attended law school for two years and spent a brief stint in McKeesport as a social worker before joining the Pittsburgh police force in 1955. When he discovered the inequities in hiring and assignments—at that time Black officers were not even allowed in patrol cars—he began fighting. He helped organize the Guardians of Greater Pittsburgh to safeguard the interests of Black officers.

“I’ll never forget Harvey and (later Chief) Mugsy Moore traveling the country calling attention to the problems in the Pittsburgh police,” said long-time friend Louis “Hop” Kendrick. “He jeopardized his job, had death threats, but he never quit. And he made it possible for a lot of Blacks and women to become police.”

Adams also implemented a minority police recruitment program, organized and implemented youth athletic and educational programs and organized police and community councils for the city. In 1970, the Guardians, along with the NAACP, the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, winning a consent decree that required one African-American and one woman be included in each four new recruits hired.

harveywpointer
OPENING DOORS— Harvey Adams points to himself and the small group of Black police officers on the force at that time. He was mainly responsible for the affirmative action program that opened the doors for more Black officers, as well as promotions. Shown here from left are John Daniels, John Harrell, Mac Henderson, Raymond Hood, Adams, Karl Jackson and Delmus Orme.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper praised Adams’ commitment to equality on the force.

“Harvey Adams was a trailblazer. He was a no nonsense man with a purpose as he helped to align standards that would be used for the fair hiring of many of our African-American officers on the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police today,” he said. “Harvey was a great mentor to me and a role model to many. He will be greatly missed.”

Adams retired as a sergeant in 1975 and one year later was elected president of the NAACP Pittsburgh branch, a position he held until 1992. During his tenure he organized several protests and boycotts that led to addressing the lack of opportunities for Blacks in construction and business. He also led boycotts of Downtown stores that discriminated against Black customers, as well as the massive protest of the Volkswagen plant in North Versailles.

Alma Speed Fox said although she was close to Adams’ first wife, she didn’t get to know him well until after an NAACP march to benefit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s.

“Harvey escorted my husband and me back to the Hill District. It was hard for him to be active as a police officer, but after that he became very active,” she said. “When he became branch president, he worked very had for those of us who were oppressed. Harvey helped us get jobs, promotions, recognition and a lot of changes in the police department.”

During that time Adams was also instrumental in seeing that African-Americans were employed by Volkswagen when it opened a plant here and seeing that the city’s first cable television franchise deal benefited the Black community.

Tim Stevens, who followed Adams as NAACP Pittsburgh Branch president, called him the strongest African-American leader in the region for decades.

“He was a strong, passionate and authoritative speaker against injustice, even when it wasn’t in his best interest to speak out, he forged ahead anyway,” said Stevens. “I was privileged to serve as his vice president. He never gave up the ship. His strength will be missed.”

In 1982, Adams, who had been operating a private security firm since his retirement, was appointed chief of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh Police Department. But his ongoing civil rights work often found him at odds with the city, especially with Mayor Tom Murphy and Housing Authority Director Stanley Lowe.

Eventually, Adams had enough, and in 1994 called a press conference publicly blasting both men for conspiring to oust him, gut the department and compromise public safety. He was fired the next day.

Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson said Adams could be diplomatic and strategic, but he was passionate and given to outbursts—either way, he said, you knew exactly where you stood with Adams.

“He was fearless. I have always respected him for being bold enough and courageous enough to fight for others,” said Robinson. “We in the Black community owe a huge debt of gratitude to Harvey.”

Adams continued his civil rights work as the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch Police Affairs committee chair until his health began to deteriorate. Though emphysema and a series of strokes limited his mobility, he still worked to help organize the annual Afro American Heritage Day Parade.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato called Adams a civil rights champion.

“This region has lost a true trailblazer and advocate for equality for all residents. Like many others of his generation, Harvey Adams did not stand still, but stood tall in the face of adversity, making sure that everyone was given fair and equal opportunity,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. Today, Allegheny County mourns the loss of a great man and a great champion for civil rights.”

Shirley, his wife of 35 years, said until a week before his death, Adams was still telling everyone that he was going to be up and around and walking again. She said their life was special. There were the times when he was on the police force when rocks came through the windows or his car tires were slashed, but there was also the good he did.

“There were families that wouldn’t turn their kids into the police unless Harvey was there, because they knew he would protect them. He loved helping other people and giving back to the community,” she said. “He was a good husband, a good father, and a good friend. It was fun, joyful—you name it, we had it.”

In addition to his wife, Adams is survived by three children and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were being handled by Samuel L. Coston Funeral Home.

The viewing for Adams will be Sept. 11 from 2-8 p.m. at Samuel E. Coston Funeral Home Inc., 427 Lincoln Ave., East Liberty. The funeral service will be Sept. 12 at 11 a.m. at Bethel AME Church, 2720 Webster Ave., Hill District.

In lieu of flowers, send a donation to the Harvey Adams Scholarship Fund, care of The Poise Foundation, One Gateway Center, #500, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15222.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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