By Cliff McCarthy, 2016
Last Updated 21 April 2017
Both from humble origins, Numa and Osceola (Macarthy) Adams were two of the most accomplished members of our extended family, both independently establishing careers with national reputations in their own right. Numa, from his birth in rural Delaplane, Virginia, made himself a leader in medical education for African-Americans and was the first black dean of a medical school. Osceola, the daughter of Charles H. Macarthy of Albany, Georgia, found a career for herself in the theater, teaching drama and working with the likes of Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
The early life of Numa Adams is described in the following excerpts which are from a retrospective, written by his colleague Dr. W. Montague Cobb, in the Journal of the National Medical Association:
Dr. Adams was a man of slight build, handsome, kindly face and shy, retiring manner. His quiet and sometimes hesitant speech did not proclaim his firm sagacious courage. He was born February 26, 1885 in Delaplane, Va., in Fauquier County, about seventy miles due west of Washington, D.C…
In the beautiful valley which was Delaplane, he received his early education in a country school taught and operated by his uncle, Robert Adams. Here he early acquired the habit of patient scholarship which was to characterize his entire career, by “reading dictionary,” that is, reading slowly through all the words.
Dr. Adam’s grandmother, Mrs. Amanda Adams, was a vital force in his life. She was a highly respected midwife in Delaplane who had assisted old Dr. Green in delivering hundreds of Negro and white babies. she had a vast knowledge of medicinal herbs which she collected and dispensed to the people of her community. Young Numa assisted her in collecting these herbs and learned from her about their medicinal properties, real or fancied. He started his own collection of herbs. This sturdy old lady inspired the beginning of his scientific curiosity and with her unwavering faith in his capacity and constant urging in all his endeavors, was a source of strength as long as she lived…
In 1898, when Numa was thirteen, the family moved to Steelton, Pa. He entered the public schools there, a shy, awkward country boy, and promptly met the derision of his city-wise fellow students. In his first days, he was called upon to stand and sing from a music book. The black dots were meaningless to him and his attempt brought forth roars of laughter from his classmates. He sat down in tears.
The teacher, Rev. Henry Howard Summers gave the class a stiff rebuke and said assuringly, “Sonny can sing. Sonny has a good voice.” At home Numa sat up half the night until he had made some sense out of the strange language of musical notation and next day sang before the class to win their approbation. After such a trying introduction to formal musical education it is interesting and significant that Dr. Adams later bought a second-hand cornet, learned to play it with the help of a storekeeper, and with this instrument earned his way through high school, college and medical school as a professional musician in various orchestras … The deep insight, warm sympathy and understanding of Rev. Summers helped young Numa through the difficult period of adjustment in Steelton. The friendship between him and Numa was the nearest thing Dr. Adams knew to a father-son relationship.
Numa graduated with honors from Steelton High Schoof in 1905 and then taught in the public schools, first as a substitute teacher in Steelton and then, as a seventh-grade teacher in Carlisle, Pa. He entered Howard University in 1907, graduating magna cum laude in 1911. The following year, he was awarded a Masters degree in chemistry from Columbia University.
During his years in college, Numa played in the Lyric Orchestra, a dance band mostly comprised of other medical and dental students. He played with this band for three years, usually three to five nights a week, at places like the True Reformers Hall, the Nineteenth Street Hall, and the Odd Fellows Hall in Washington, DC.
Numa taught at Howard University from 1912 to 1919, rising from instructor to head of the Chemistry department. During those years, he met Osceola Macarthy, who was a student of his, and they were married in 1915.
Osceola was born on June 13, 1890 in Albany, Georgia to Charles Hannibal and Julia Ann (Johnson) Macarthy. She attended Albany Normal School. She and her sister Huldah left Georgia to attend Fisk University Preparatory School in Nashville, Tennessee, where Huldah had hoped to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Osceola went on to Howard University where she graduated in the class of 1913.
While at Howard, she was among the twenty-two founding members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which is now the largest black woman’s organization in the world with 125,000 members. Her activities in the sorority have been chronicled in a book called In Search of Sisterhood, a history of the organization. Among other things, Osceola was instrumental in organizing the sorority to march in the famous 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession down Pennsylvania Avenue on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s
inauguration. This courageous action was the first public act of the new sorority and, like the other marchers, they conducted themselves admirably in the face of jeers and projectiles from the hostile mob. Efforts by organizers to segregate the black women at the end of the parade largely failed as the women chose to march instead with their state’s contingents. Over the years, Osceola served the sorority in a variety of positions of responsibility and the Deltas established an arts award in her name, called “the Osceola”.
In September of 1919, Numa left Howard University to enter Rush Medical School at the University of Chicago in March of 1920. By this time, he and Osceola had a young son to care for and during his years in medical school, Numa once again made his way as a professional musician, switching from cornet to saxophone to keep up with changing musical times. It is said that he learned the instrument in three weeks. For four years, he played every night in Charley Cook’s Orchestra at Riverview Park Ballroom. He also completed his studies in December of 1923 and interned at Hospital No.2 in St. Louis, later known as Homer G. Phillips Hospital. He received his M.D. in 1924 and was licensed to practice medicine and surgery in state of Illinois on February 13, 1925.
Meanwhile, Osceola was working, as well. She was employed variously as a newspaper columnist, a substitute probation officer, and, working under the name of “Mrs. Adams,” as a fashion designer at J. Reinhardt & Co., one of Chicago’s leading dress manufacturers. She also did graduate work at the University of Chicago. On Sundays, she painted for relaxation.
Numa served as assistant medical director to the Victory life Insurance Company. He also was an instructor in neurology and psychiatry in the Provident Hospital School of Nursing from 1927·1929.
On June 4, 1929, Numa Adams was appointed dean of the Howard University Medical School, its first African-American dean and the first black dean of any American medical school. It was a controversial selection at a critical time in the medical school’s development. Among his responsibilities; this dean was charged with the enormous task of reorganizing the med school while raising its standards, and clarifying the lines of authority and responsibility between the medical school and Freedman’s Hospital, making teaching the primary function of the hospital. “Despite opposition and obstructionism from within the institution,” Numa Adams gave the last measure of his energy to this effort. By the time of his early death on August 29, 1940, the results of his labors were beginning to flower, but he was a casualty in the struggle. Numa Adams died of pneumonia after an operation at Billings Hospital in Chicago. His body was cremated and interred at Graceland Cemetery in that city.
The Howard University College of Medicine website has this to say about Numa Adams:
“In addition to being the first black dean, Dr. Numa P. G. Adams is remembered for his leadership in developing a medical school faculty that was second to none. He did this largely by recruiting the ablest young black faculty he could find and sending them away for two years of advanced training at prestigious universities and hospitals around the country. This program was funded by grants from the General Education Board established by the Rockefeller Foundation. Among the twenty-five individuals to receive advanced fellowship training through the General Education Board were Dr. Montague Cobb, who earned his Ph.D. at Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Dr. Charles Drew, who earned the D.Sc. degree from Columbia University. In the fall of 1938, Dr. Drew was sent to Columbia by Dr. Adams to work with Dr. Allen O. Whipple, one of the leading surgeons of his day. Whipple assigned Dr. Drew to work with Dr. John Scudder, whose research team was studying fluid balance, blood chemistry, and blood transfusion.”Numa was a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha honor medical fraternity; a former chair of the commission on medical education; was active in the National Medical Association, serving on at least one committee and the editorial board of its journal; the National Tuberculosis Association and the District of Columbia Tuberculosis Association; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the American Social Hygiene Society; and the Cook County Physicians’ Association of Chicago.
While Dr. Adams was absorbed with his work, Osceola had returned to graduate school at New York University, from which she earned a Master’s degree in drama in 1936. By then, she had adopted the stage name of Osceola Archer. Darlene Clark Hine wrote in Black Women in America:
Osceola Archer debuted on Broadway in “Between Two Worlds,” the Elmer Rice play that opened at the Belasco Theatre in October 1934. She played Rose Henneford, a maid with exquisite taste and manners, more refined, in fact, than the woman for whom she worked. Henneford, trained as a librarian, was married to a doctor whose career was hurt by discrimination. The role was not terribly far from Archer’s own life.
Osceola Archer then appeared in 1935 in Archibald MacLeish’s short-lived Panic, along with Rose McClendon and Orson Welles. Martha Graham choreographed and Virgil Thomson supplied the music. Her husband advised her that she had entered a precarious profession and should consider teaching for a while. She taught at Bennett College in North Carolina, but the professional stage was a much stronger magnet than academia. Her husband died in 1940 while she was on tour with “The Emperor Jones.” At that point, she moved to New York permanently. In 1946, she became resident director at Putnam County Playhouse in Mahopac, where she stayed for ten happy years.
Finding roles was never easy for Osceola. She was considered too fair to play black parts, so she often had to play white roles, such as Miss Prism, in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
From 1940-46, she served as the acting coach and director for the American Negro Theater (ANT) in Harlem.
“ANT incorporated as a cooperative, with members sharing expenses and profits. Part-time salaries were paid to some officers under the auspices of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, but most members contributed their services. In addition to producing plays in its first home, a converted lecture room at the 135th Street library, and later at the Henry Lincoln Johnson Lodge of the Elks at 15 West 126th Street, ANT organized workshops, a school of drama, and a radio show production unit. In its nine-year history, ANT produced nineteen legitimate dramas, of which twelve were world premieres.” (Weldon B. Durham in American Theatre Companies, 1931-1986)
It was there that she was called to be the director of a play entitled “Days of Our Youth” featuring two young men making their dramatic debuts: Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. In his 2011 autobiography My Song: A Memoir, Harry Belafonte remembered:
In those early months of 1946, Sidney seemed no more likely to be an actor than a comic or conch entrepreneur. He’d failed in his first audition for the ANT, losing out on a three-month trial with the troupe. In desperation he’d pleaded to be allowed to work as a janitor at the theater — anything to feel he was at least associated with something he wanted to do — and won his three-month trial that way. Now it was coming to an end, and the ANT’s director, Osceola Archer, was disinclined to give him another trial period. Sidney told me he felt Osceola was racist. She was very Indian-looking, with long, black, thick hair and rather light skin. Sidney felt strongly that she liked me more than him because my skin was quite a bit lighter than his. I never saw any evidence of this, and thought Sidney was just oversensitive and vulnerable. But what made him that way, more than anything else, was the darkness of his skin. He felt isolated by it, cut off not just from white society, but many black people, too.
Both to Sidney’s shock and to mine, Osceola asked me to fill a role in the ANT’s revival of a comedy called On Strivers’ Row. I hadn’t sought it out; unlike Sidney, I hadn’t even wanted to act. I just liked being around the theater, with all these exuberant characters, doing manual work: being backstage, burning my hands on ropes, handling hot bulbs, building and breaking down sets. When Osceola first asked me to read for a role, I refused. “No, no, you won’t get me into that,” I said. I hadn’t imagined I could be an actor. Certainly I didn’t have the chops yet even to try. But Osceola kept after me, telling me I was the right type, and the rest of the cast began giving me the “group muscle,” making me feel I was letting the whole organization down. By the time they got through all that, I was in the play.
The list of Osceola’s acting and directing credits is quite extensive, including theater, radio, films, television dramas and commercials. (For a complete list of her acting and directing credits, click here.) In addition, she fought relentlessly against racial discrimination. In her late seventies, she was a member of a panel the sought to end bias in the entertainment industry. She was a member of the Actor’s Equity Committee on Minority Affairs and was also on the executive committee of the Stage Door Canteen. She received awards from the U.S.O. for distinguished service during World War II and from Detroit mayor Coleman Young in 1974 for her contributions to American theater.
Osceola was a Democrat in politics and she outlined some of her political beliefs at the 1969 Delta Sigma Theta annual conference held in Baltimore. The theme of the conference was “One Nation or Two?” and it addressed issues of racial integration and separatism. Osceola addressed the conference and her speech was described this way:
The idea of continuing to strive toward one nation was expressed by founder Osceola Adams, then seventy-nine years old and still elegant in dress and manner. She gave an eloquent speech criticizing those who would abandon the drive toward integration. “Voluntary segregation is an open invitation to compulsory segregation,” she said in her firm voice to applause from the assembly. “It can well be the first fatal step down to a South Africa brand of apartheid.” She went on to say that “the proposition of separatism is negative and defeatist. By implication, it is an admission of inferiority … I am beginning to feel like a mad Cassandra,” she continued, “but I feel so strongly that if we lose this struggle to preserve the concept of ‘One Nation’ everything we have ever worked for will be destroyed — the hopes, the dreams, the labor of our Frederick Douglasses, our Sojourner Truths, our Mary Church Terrells, our Mary McLeod Bethunes, will amount to nothing and all of Delta’s splendid public service will be destroyed. We are now beginning to emerge from compulsory segregation … We still have a long way to go,” she concluded, “but we are on our way. Let us not turn back now,” she said to a standing ovation. (Paula Giddings, In Search of Sisterhood)
In 1975, Delta Sigma Theta released a double-album phonograph record, music mixed with spoken word, that featured many Delta alums and celebrities, such as Ruby Dee, Roberta Flack, Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Leslie Uggams, and Osceola Adams. Special guests included Aretha Franklin and Roscoe Lee Browne. Entitled “Roses and Revolutions,” it is a precious time-capsule of the African American experience in 1975. Osceola read four poems for the project.
Osceola Adams died in New York on November 20, 1983 at the age of ninety-three. She was survived by her only son, Charles Macarthy Adams, who resided in New York City until his death in 2000.
Mr. Charles Macarthy Adams was born in Washington, DC on October 20, 1916 and attended Dunbar High School. He earned Bachelor’s degrees from Dartmouth University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master’s in Mathematics from New York University. He chose aeronautical engineering for his career and was a licensed professional engineer in New York State. In 1939, he was the first African American engineer hired by the Curtiss Wright Corporation. He worked at Republic Aviation and East Coast Aeronautics, among other places, and worked on the preliminary designs of the A-10 aircraft and components of the Space Shuttle.
Child of Numa Pompilius Garfield & Osceola Marie (Macarthy) ADAMS
NUMA POMPILIUS GARFIELD ADAMS was born 26 February 1885 in Delaplane, Fauquier Co., VA, and died 29 August 1940 in Billings Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. He married OSCEOLA MARIE MACARTHY 13 September 1915 in home of C. H. Macarthy, Albany, GA, daughter of CHARLES MACARTHY and JULIA JOHNSON. She was born 13 June 1890 in Albany, Dougherty Co., GA, and died 20 November 1983 in New York, NY. The child of NUMA ADAMS and OSCEOLA MACARTHY is:
i. CHARLES MACARTHY ADAMS, b. 20 October 1916, Washington, DC; d. 19 August 2000, New York, NY.
- “138 Get Degrees” (Washington Post, 1 June 1911).
- 1900 U.S. Census for Charlie H. MaCarthy (District #45, Albany, Dougherty Co., GA).
- 1900 U.S. Census for Marshall Adams (District #102, Steelton, Dauphin Co., PA).
- 1910 U.S. Census for Ossie M. McCarthy (District #22, Ward #3, Nashville, Davidson Co., TN).
- 1912 City Directory for Albany, GA (at http://www.ancestry.com).
- 1920 U.S. Census for Numa P. Adams (6th Ward, City of Chicago, Cook Co., IL).
- 1930 U.S. Census for Numa P. Adams (10th Precinct, Washington, D.C.).
- 1939 City Directory for Greensboro, Guilford Co., NC (at http://www.ancestry.com).
- 1940 U.S. Census for Numa Adams (Dist #1-513, Washington, DC).
- Afrolumens: Central Pennsylvania African American History (webpage at http://www.afrolumens.org/index.htm, 15 July 2003).
- Application for Admission to Morningside House for Huldah E. Macarthy (found in family materials of Charles Macarthy Adams).
- Autobiographical information provided by Charles Macarthy Adams.
- Belafonte, Harry and Michael Shnayerson, My Song: A Memoir, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2011.
- Birth Certificate for Charles Macarthy Adams (Health Department, District of Columbia, filed 23 October 1916).
- Biographical information written by Osceola Macarthy Adams, courtesy of Charles Macarthy Adams.
- “Charles M. Adams” (scrapbook prepared by Osceola Adams for her son), in possession of author.
- Davis, Marianna W., ed., Contributions of Black Women to America, Kenday Press, Inc., 1982.
- Delayed Certificate of Birth for Osceola Marie Macarthy (Georgia Department of Public Health, filed 23 August 1956).
- “Drama Teacher Adams, 93, Dies,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 25 November 1983.
- Durham, Weldon B., ed., American Theatre Companies, 1931-1986, New York: Greenwood Press, 1989
- Fauquier County Virginia Birth Registry, 1853-1896, Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County, The Plains, VA.
- Giddings, Paula, In Search of Sisterhood, New York: William Morrow and Co., 1988.
- Hine, Darlene Clark, ed., Black Women in America, Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1993.
- Howard University College of Medicine, website at: http://healthsciences.howard.edu/education/colleges/medicine/about/mission/short-history
- Kaufman, Galshoff, & Savitt, eds., Dictionary of American Medical Biography, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
- Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982.
- Low, W. Augustus and Virgil A. Clift., eds., Encyclopedia of Black America, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981.
- “Married in Albany, Ga.” (Savannah Tribune, 16 September 1915).
- Notable Names in the American Theatre, Clifton, NJ: James T. White & Co., 1976.
- “Numa P.G. Adams, M.D., 1885-1940”, W. Montague Cobb, M.D., Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 43, No.1, January 1951.
- Obituary for Numa Adams, Baltimore Afro-American, September 7, 1940, page 1.
- Obituary for Osceola Adams, New York Times, November 24, 1983.
- Passenger List for the Ship Christopher Colombo (inbound to New York from Gibraltar, 13 November 1956, as published at http://www.ancestry.com).
- “Roses and Revolutions,” Delta Sigma Theta, D.S.T. Telecommunications, Inc., 1975.
- Social Security Death Index (as reproduced at http://www.ancestry.com, 10 October 2003).
- Who’s Who in Colored America, 1928-29.
- Who Was Who in America, Vol. 2, Chicago: A.N. Marquis Co., 1950.
- Williams, Michael W., ed., The African-American Encyclopedia, New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1993.
- World War I Draft Registration Card for Numa Pompilius Garfield Adams (dated 12 September 1918, reproduced at http://www.ancestry.com, 29 April 2005).