Both his parents were free persons of color. Following private schooling in Wisconsin and Ohio, Adams graduated from Oberlin College. After a brief teaching stint in Louisville, in 1870 he followed his uncle, Joseph C. Corbin, to work in Arkansas in the Reconstruction. By 1874 he had risen from schoolteacher to assistant superintendent of public instruction. His lifelong activism in the Republican party began in Arkansas; there he twice served as secretary to Republican state conventions, was elected as justice of the peace on the party ticket, and held the offices of engrossing clerk of the state senate and deputy commissioner of public works. The defeat of the Arkansas Republican party in 1874 and the racial repression that followed led Adams to return to Louisville, where he again engaged in teaching.
Adams entered journalism in 1879 when he and his brother, Cyrus Field Adams, established the Louisville Bulletin, a weekly newspaper that served the Louisville African-American community until 1885, when it was subsumed by the American Baptist. In 1880 Adams helped organize the National Afro-American Press Association, which held its first annual meeting in Louisville that year. The organization elected him as its first president, and he served from 1880 to 1882.