Alma Adams was born in High Point, NC, in 1947, but her family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, while she was an infant. They left Maryland for Newark, New Jersey, where Adams, an African American, attended predominantly white West Side High School. After riots broke out across Newark following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, she chose to attend North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC.
Adams earned both her bachelors and masters degrees from NC A&T, where she also served as president of the Arts Circle. Following graduation, she was appointed chair of the Art Department at the Palmer Institute, where she taught seventh through twelfth grades. She later earned a doctorate from Ohio State University and joined the faculty of Bennett College as a Professor of Art. Adams served on the Greensboro School Board from 1984 to 1986, the Greensboro City Council from 1987 to 1994, and in the North Carolina House of Representatives, beginning in 1994.