In the 1930s, a young Fannie Phelps determined she would finish college at an accelerated pace so she could get her mother "out of the washtub" and speed her start in the teaching profession.
She accomplished her goal, helping her mother retire from life as a seamstress and laundress and landing a teaching position in January 1938 with the help of Columbia black schools supervisor C.A. Johnson.
That semester's position at Booker T. Washington Heights Elementary blossomed into an illustrious "40 year and 20 days" education career for Fannie Phelps Adams, who is known to thousands of graduates of Booker T. Washington High and A.C. Flora High.
Tonight, the 92-year-old Adams will be honored, along with 11 others, as part of the 2010 South Carolina African American History Calendar sponsored by AT&T along with several other organizations, including The State Media Co. A reception is set for 6 p.m. at the Koger Center for the Arts.
Adams is somewhat of a reluctant honoree, she said, having received so many accolades in recent years. "I thought to myself that people were tired of seeing me."
Not so, said USC history professor Bobby Donaldson.
"She serves as a really strong role model both in her capacity as a teacher and an administrator," Donaldson said. "She understood the transformative power of education" and used that power to influence not only generations of students but teachers as well.
"Her span of influence and knowledge of Columbia dates back to the 1920s," he said, so she still functions as a kind of "community historian" who is able to fill in historical gaps.
Adams grew up in Wheeler Hill on the end of Catawba Street known to its African-American residents as Tobacco Street. Her father, James Phelps, died when she was 4, so she helped her widowed mother, Mary Phelps, rear the two youngest of her nine siblings.
After attending Booker T. Washington from grades 1-12, she walked daily to Allen University, where she had obtained a scholarship. She later married David King Adams, who died in 1979. They had one daughter, Mary Suzette Adams-Jenkins.
Although her life was restricted by the code of segregation - Adams could not take classes at USC or even step on the nearby campus - Adams did not let that define her life or her teaching.
Realizing that whites of that era had the advantage in the competition for employment, "Our stress to children then was you've got to be 'better than' if you plan to be successful," she said Monday.
"We taught the whole child at Booker. We were interested in the morals; we were interested in the person's knowing what society expected of you. We felt like we had to give all of that to the child."
Adams, who taught history and social studies and served as a guidance counselor and assistant principal, never pressed for school integration, preferring that separate black facilities be brought up to standards that whites enjoyed.
But once the integration of S.C. schools began in earnest in 1970, she helped clear a path for mixing white and black students, first at Booker T. Washington and then at A.C. Flora.
"They didn't know each other that first year and they didn't like each other much," she recalled. But over time, friendships developed.
"Children are children. I don't care if they are white, black, blue or yellow, there's a connection there if you let them alone."
Today, she laments that integration and modern education have failed so many black children.
"If I could be younger, I would declare to you I would like to get ahold of some of these young people," she said. She also believes parents need to step up and become an integral part of school life.
She'll tell that to anyone who wants to listen. And Adams' circle of friends, colleagues and former students seems as wide and deep as ever. She still drives and is an active member of St. James AME Church near her home.
In 2008, she was inducted into the Richland 1 Hall of Fame and honored last year with an exhibition at USC's Museum of Education.
She has had some medical problems and suffered the loss of her sister and fellow educator, Celia Phelps Martin, in December, a grief she still feels keenly. She said her daughter checks on her more frequently during the day, perhaps a bow to her advancing age.
But Adams' attitude toward each day, fortified by her belief in God, is as hopeful as it was 70 years ago when she raced through her college curriculum to get a head-start on her career.
"When I do things for people, when I did things for children ... my whole heart was in it, my whole heart was in it."