Bobby Joe Adamson grew up as one of 12 kids on a 50-acre farm in Ooltewah where his sharecropper father, Charlie Barney Adamson, grew cotton, corn and sweet potatoes.
"We was poor, but we didn't know it," says Adamson, a real estate developer.
So he felt good on the day he put up a brick sign at Adamson Estates, the upscale subdivision that he built in the 1990s on the land his father share-cropped.
"I said, 'Dad, I got your name up,'" he remembers. "I shed a few tears."
That was a milestone for Adamson, who began his career in construction at age 17 as a bricklayer after he attended Booker T. Washington School, a black-only Hamilton County high school.
Now 70, Adamson has a number of projects in the pipeline: He's building Mapp Estates, a 25-home development that's the first new subdivision in Brainerd in 15 years.
So far, two homes have sold at Mapp Estates, named in honor of longtime Chattanooga civil rights advocate, James R. Mapp, who died in 2015 at age 87. Adamson has a retail building under construction on Apison Pike near Adamson Estates that will be home to the second outlet of Uncle Larry's Fish, which is currently at 736 M.L. King Boulevard. And Adamson plans to build a five-story apartment called The Big Nine on MLK, which is what the black community used to call Ninth Street before it was renamed ML King Boulevard.
It's a busy time for Adamson Developers LLC.
That's one reason why about a year ago, Bobby Adamson relocated the headquarters of his business, which has seven full-time employees, out of his home in Adamson Estates and into a building that Adamson bought at 3445 Brainerd Road that used to hold a Labor Ready office.
'Dad gave me work ethic'
Adamson, who co-pastors the Mt. Summit of Peace Church with his wife, Floria, doesn't shy away from work.
"My dad gave me my work ethic; my mother gave me my spirituality," he says.
And he sees his developments as a way to give back to the community and to honor those he's close to.
Creating construction jobs is a solution for crime and gang membership, he said in December at the ground-breaking for Mapp Estates. The ceremony attracted dozens of people to the new subdivision, including Mayor Andy Berke, other elected officials and members of James Mapp's family. The development is being built on vacant land on the south side of Midland Pike across from E. Henderson Drive.
Mapp Estates' three-bedroom, two full bath, two-car garage homes will sell for between $165,000 and $180,000 and will range in size from 1,300 to 1,600 square feet. They'll have such amenities as granite countertops, stainless steel Energy Star appliances and energy-efficient construction.
The subdivision's homes are being listed, marketed and sold by The Grace Frank Group Real Estate Partners.
Frank said "extensive research" showed it's been about 15 years since a new subdivision has been built in Brainerd.
Mentor spurred him on
The street leading into Mapp Estates is named Harvey Lane in honor of Harvey Adams, the bricklayer who was Adamson's brother-in-law and mentor. Adams, who's passed away, spurred on the young Adamson on with reverse psychology — by telling Adamson he'd never make it.
"I became a bricklayer," Adamson says.
Soon after Adamson began working as a bricklayer as a member of Union Local No. 6 of the Tennessee Bricklayers, he set his sights on taking on being a mason, which pays about three times as much.
The money that Adamson made as a mason, along with side jobs, helped him buy the 50 acres that his father sharecropped. Adamson bought the 50 acres around 1980 for $58,000.
"That was a lot of money back then," he said.
Adamson tapped his home equity, and worked hard to pay off the note in five years.
Then, in 1994, Adamson was a year into his construction venture, and he was stuck. No one would give him the $300,000 loan he needed for Adamson Developers' next project.
"Banks weren't letting black people have money," he recalls. "I went to several banks, and they said no."
But Adamson had a friend whose wife worked at Regions Bank, and she vouched for Adamson.
"You need to give this guy a chance," the woman told banker Sam Moody, who gave Adamson his first loan.
Keeps family close
Adamson used the bank loan to build roads, install utilities and prepare 13 acres of land for development. He stretched the money he had in such ways as promising to install at least three appliances in each home that used natural gas — the stove, water heater and fireplace. That way, the gas company brought gas lines to the houses without charging Adamson.
Adamson named the new roads after his four children's first names — Leon-Brenda Lane and Bobby-Jeffrey Drive — and built 22 houses. He sold each one.
"It was very successful," he says.
Adamson keeps family close. His son, Jeffrey, and his wife both worked alongside Adamson recently in Brainerd headquarters of Adamson Developers LLC, which belongs to such professional agencies as the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga and the Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee.
"He can be hard on you — make sure it's done right," says Jeffrey Adamson, who's worked for about 20 years for his father pouring concrete, setting footers and doing "whatever needs to be done."