Henry Lee Adams, pioneering figure in Utah law, dies at 86

Adams was the first Black person to graduate from University of Utah’s law school, among other firsts.

(Eddie and Annie Adams Educational Foundation) Henry Lee Adams, the first Black person to graduate from the University of Utah law school and to serve as a Utah assistant attorney general, died Oct. 15, 2021, at age 86.

Henry Lee Adams, the first Black person to graduate from the University of Utah’s law school and to serve as an assistant attorney general in Utah, has died.

Adams died Oct. 15, according to a personal obituary published last week in The Salt Lake Tribune. No cause of death was mentioned. He was 86.

“His legal talents were expansive,” Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the U.’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, said of Adams in a statement issued by the university, “and throughout his career, he used them in service to many as both a judge and an attorney.”

“Henry’s many accomplishments are proof that the law is one of the most powerful tools to serve one’s community, and today we are proud to honor his life’s work,” the statement continued.

Adams graduated from the U.’s law school in 1959. He also served as the first Black delegate to the Utah Democratic Party’s caucus, and the first Black assistant attorney general for the state of Utah.

In 2005, the Utah Minority Bar Association recognized Adams as one of the first 50 people of color to be admitted to the Utah State Bar. According to the association, Adams was the ninth person of color admitted to the Utah bar, and the fourth Black person.

In addition to working for the Utah Attorney General’s office, Adams worked for the Internal Revenue Service and for many years at Kennecott Utah Copper.

During his tenure with the attorney general’s office, Adams was involved in a three-car crash in Bountiful that killed Zelda Donehoo, 43, and her 17-year-old daughter, Sheryl. Bountiful Police at the time cited Adams for driving under the influence of alcohol, and he was later charged with two counts of automobile homicide in the Oct. 13, 1967, crash.

In June 1968, Adams pleaded guilty to a single count of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to a year in the Davis County jail but released in September 1968 after serving 90 days. At the time of his conviction, he also left the attorney general’s office.

In 1986, Adams and his wife, Jennie, moved from Bountiful to Gallup, New Mexico, where he worked for 14 years as an attorney and hearing judge for the Navajo Nation. The couple returned to Utah to retire in the early 2000s, though Adams continued to take pro bono cases.

Adams was president and founding director of the Eddie and Annie Adams Education Foundation, named for his parents. The foundation, launched in 2018 by Henry and his siblings Afesa and Charles, gives scholarships and grants to students “who demonstrate the intellectual ability and drive to complete an educational program and a need of financial assistance to complete their education,” according to the foundation’s website.

Afesa Adams, according to the U., was an alumna and faculty member of the university’s psychology department, and served as associate vice president for academic affairs. She was a leader in the U.’s early campus diversity efforts, notably launching the school’s “MLK Days of Remembrance” activities, the U. said in a statement. Afesa Adams died in 2018.

Henry Lee Adams was born Nov. 14, 1934, in Greenwood, Miss., the second of four children. Their parents, Eddie and Annie Adams, moved the family to Utah in 1942 in search of better opportunities and education. According to the University of Utah’s statement, Adams was the first Black person to serve as his high school’s student body president.

In high school, he dated Jennie Davis. They were married in 1954, and raised four children in Bountiful. They were married 63 years, until Jennie’s death in 2017.

Adams is survived by three of his four children — Anthony Edward Adams, Natalie Ann Adams and Karen Sisson — as well as his brother, Charles; three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Jennie as well as his son Henry, his siblings Afesha and Eddie and two grandchildren died previously.

A celebration of life was held in Salt Lake City on Monday morning. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Eddie and Annie Adams Educational Foundation, family said.