Cary History: Remembering the Teachings & Spirit of Ethel Adams

Cary, NC — In this month’s column, you’ll hear from Charlie Adams, a lifetime Cary resident, as he shares memories of his mother, Ethel.

She was a fair, thoughtful and nurturing woman who lived her life to educate everyone, even in a time of segregation.

Charlie Adams Tells the Story of His Mother, Ethel

“My mother, Ethel Adams, was very outspoken, very independent, very much ahead of her time. I remember coming in one day from school and there was a note, “I’ve gone to Florida for the week. You and your dad take care of the house.” She was a very well-read, very bright, intelligent lady. Also, she was a very strict disciplinarian.

She was not a housewife. She was out there and doing things in the Garden Club, and in the Woman’s Club, and Eastern Star, and running PTA. She had her own agenda.”

A Teacher in Cary Until She was 71

“Mom taught third through sixth grades for thirty years at Cary Elementary and High School under Carl Mills. Her students all loved her. She taught until she was seventy-one, only because they kept bringing her back.

Each year, after a certain age, the principal had to make a request to the county to bring a teacher back. Carl brought her back six or seven years. He’d say, “Mrs. Adams will you teach one more year? You’ve got to keep teaching as long as I’m principal.” When she started losing her eyesight, she said, “Carl, I can’t teach, I can’t see anymore.” She had macular degeneration and went completely blind for the last twenty years of her life.”

Teaching Behind the Scenes After Going Blind

“Black people who worked for my parents and those they knew in town who couldn’t read, she taught them to read, quietly behind the scenes. They’d sit on her back porch at lunchtime and have a reading lesson.

Some were fifty, sixty years old, couldn’t read a letter, but she taught quite a few of them how to read. I’d listen for a minute to them struggling. She did this after she retired from teaching and lost most of her eyesight.”

Father Leads Desegregation Efforts

These photos of Mr. and Mrs. Adams appear in the walking tour of Cary’s historic Hillcrest Cemetery.

“In 1963, my dad, Henry, was on the Wake County and local Cary school boards. He spearheaded the effort to desegregate Cary High School, the first in Wake County to do so.

He put a team of people from both boards and members of the NAACP together, and they worked to develop a plan to bring black students to all-white Cary High.

Henry and his group were getting death threats and lost a lot of friends because of this very unpopular initiative, but they kept going. Mom was great support for him through that very difficult time. Her role was to be the good, supportive wife, because she also felt the same way he did about equal opportunities for the black students, and because she believed in what he was doing.”

Much of Cary’s Heritage is taken from the book, Just a Horse-Stopping Place, an Oral History of Cary, North Carolina, published in August, 2006. The book is a collection of oral history interviews conducted between local citizens and Friends of the Page-Walker Hotel. The rest comes from later oral history interviews with local citizens.

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2 replies
  1. Sheila Ogle
    Sheila Ogle says:

    Love the article and remember Mrs. Adams so well. Charles Henry and I went to school together and it was great to visualize him speaking about his mom. She was everything he said she was and she taught both of my children at Cary elementary

  2. Gabe Talton
    Gabe Talton says:

    I remember sitting with Ms. Adams on her side porch as a child. My grandparents lived next door. I did not know this about their political activity which is inspiring. My strongest memory was one time when a Chevy Camaro stopped at the light at South Academy and Dry. This would have been about 1983. They were blaring clastic rock (which was then simply rock). The passenger had a bare foot propped out of the window. She hated that! She went off; I wish I could remember what she said. I did not know how bad her eye sight was and now realize that she may have been only responding to the loud music, not the bare foot. I often think of that moment when I see cars blast music on South Academy in front of the new park. I remember her very fondly.

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