“The love of my life. My ride or die.”
That’s how Yvette Finch will remember Althea Adams, who died last Thursday at age 94 with Finch at her side. She was the last daughter of Ella Joseph Adams and America’s first black U.S. Navy bandmaster Alton Adams.
Born 10 years after the then-Danish West Indies was transferred from Denmark to the United States, Althea Adams was by many accounts the quietest child in a large, boisterous family whose patriarch had achieved national renown before she was born.
Alton Adams had already been appointed the islands’ chief musician when the U.S. took over in 1917. He had toured the mid-Atlantic states, winning accolades from D.C. to Boston and the admiration of the country’s “March King,” John Philip Sousa. Some of his best-known works were composed then, too: the “Virgin Islands March,” “The Governor’s Own” and “The Spirit of the U.S.N.”
When Althea came along on August 29, 1926, the family’s house in Charlotte Amalie was full with seven children and extended family. When she was five, the Navy transferred her father to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, separating them. Tragedy struck when a pot boiled over on the stove and set the kitchen on fire. The flames spread and destroyed the home, killing Althea’s sister Hazel. Alton Adams returned to St. Thomas then and moved the family into a house on Kongens Gade that had been part of the former naval hospital; possibly the oldest residence in the area, dating to 1765. International Capital and Management Company has since built in its footprint.
“I was was born in that house. Several of us were,” Althea’s nephew Larry Finch remembered. “It had 13 rooms downstairs where we lived with several other families, and it was full of music.”
Upstairs, their bandmaster grandfather, who the children called “Tata,” played his beloved classical music. Downstairs, the children listened to calypso, soul music and everything else, Larry Finch said.
“The house was like a bus stop when we grew up. All the children came there after school until their parents picked them up. Four generations of extended Adams family were part of that household,” he said.
Although Althea formed a deep bond with her sister Gwendolyn, she grew up in her sister’s shadow. As Yvette Finch recalled, while Gwendolyn was the social butterfly of the family and had a long and considerable professional life, Althea became the family’s homemaker and caretaker. She had a son, Andre, but didn’t marry.
“Althea was the matriarch,” said Sen. Myron Jackson, who grew up in the Altons’ Upstreet neighborhood. “She would take me to the movies and spend time just listening me as a child. She raised her nieces, nephews, and great nieces and great nephews. She was our second mother who took care of us.”
Althea lived with Gwendolyn until 2003 when her sister passed. For the next 18 years, she lived with Yvette Finch, who became both friend and, later, caretaker.
“When Gwendolyn suddenly died, Althea became independent,” Finch said. “Things that Gwen used to do for her, she now started to do for herself. Once she was alone, she just blossomed. She became the social butterfly Gwendolyn had been. I was really happy for her.”
The “new” Althea danced the quadrille and grew hibiscus and orchids. She became a stalwart of her favorite groups, We From Upstreet, Friends of Denmark and the St. Thomas-St. John Chapter of the American Hibiscus Society. She had big family reunions and discovered that she loved to travel. On her 85th birthday she took her first cruise.
Althea in her 90s enjoyed the company of her four dogs and listening to her father’s band music on the radio, remembering their times at “the old house,” as everyone called the Kongens Gade home.
Although she never took up an instrument like him — Alton Adams’ flute and piccolo are displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — an inner music seemed to uplift her. “She was a positive person. She lived a happy, happy life,” Larry Finch said.
A celebration of Althea Adams’ life will be streamed at 3 p.m., May 17, at www.facebook.com/Turnbulls-Funeral-Home-1647906158813558.
The funeral service will be held at 9:30 a.m., May 18, at Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral.