Lightner, C. E

Variant Name(s):

Calvin Esau Lightner; Calvin E. Lightner

Birthplace:

Winnsboro, S. C.

Residences:

  • Raleigh, N.C.

Trades:

  • Contractor
  • Architect

Styles & Forms:

Craftsman; Gothic Revival; Neoclassical

Prolific architectural designer, builder, and civic leader C. E. (Calvin Esau) Lightner (March 31, 1878 - May 21, 1960), exemplifies the enterprising African American builders who pursued education and economic success in the New South’s Jim Crow era. A native of South Carolina and the son of a formerly enslaved carpenter, Lightner moved to Raleigh in 1898 to attend college and soon became one of the capital’s leading builders as well as a community leader. His best-known works include the Lightner Arcade and Davie Street Presbyterian Church. Despite the extent of his work, most of his buildings have been destroyed, with the Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham the principal surviving examples.

C. E. Lightner was greatly influenced by his upbringing in South Carolina. A son of Frank Lightner and Daphney (Daphine) Thompson Lightner, he was born in Winnsboro, South Carolina. He likely learned the building trade from his father, who was born into slavery in 1847 and after emancipation supported his family through farming and carpentry, building houses in Chester, South Carolina. Calvin’s mother Daphney was born free to Joseph and Millie Thompson. The family witnessed the importance of political activity, including Joseph Thompson’s service in the South Carolina State Legislature during Reconstruction. In the 1880 United States Census of Fairfield County, South Carolina, Frank Lightner was listed as a farmer and a black man, while his wife Daphney and their children were noted as mulatto. In 1900 and 1910, the censuses of Chester County, South Carolina listed Frank Lightner as a carpenter, and the 1910 census further identified him as engaged in housebuilding. Census records show that Frank was illiterate and Daphney was literate.

By 1900, Frank and Daphney Lightner’s son Calvin E. had left his parents’ household to embark on his new life in Raleigh. The 1900s and 1910s were busy decades for him as he simultaneously completed his education, started a family, and established several businesses that would serve Raleigh’s African American community. He had moved to Raleigh in 1898 to attend Shaw University, from which he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1907 or 1908. He was one of many African Americans for whom Shaw and other colleges for blacks opened the door to opportunities far beyond those their parents and grandparents had. At Shaw, Lightner would have studied with Gaston Alonzo Edwards, who taught building trades classes there and later became the first black architect licensed in North Carolina. From Edwards, Lightner likely learned architectural skills to complement the training he had as an apprentice with his father. By 1906, while still in school, Lightner established the construction company of C. E. Lightner and Brothers in Raleigh with his brother Rayford H. Lightner. Upon graduation from Shaw, C. E. served as an assistant teacher in Shaw’s industrial shop for a year.

In 1909 the Raleigh Times (August 5, 1909) described C. E. Lightner and Brothers as “Contractors and Architects” and noted that as “architects,” they took “commissions for the furnishing of plans for all kinds of buildings charging a very moderate rate of commission for a high class service.” In this period, the distinction between architects and builders was less rigid than later in the century. As noted, C. E. Lightner had probably developed architectural skills during his study with Edwards at Shaw. Various sources state that Lightner did all his own drawings and blueprints for both commercial and residential projects. C. E. Lightner and Brothers was also known for its use of wooden trusses instead of steel in their buildings.

Lightner expanded his education with industrial courses at Hampton Institute where he likely met Mamie A. Blackmon. The couple married on July 7, 1909 in Wake County. Mamie, educated at Hampton Institute and the Fayetteville State Normal School, was a home economics teacher in the Raleigh public school system. Calvin and Mamie became the parents of Calvin Nicholas, Lawrence Eugene, Clarence Everett (later the first African American mayor of Raleigh), and Margaret Lightner Hayes.

Further diversifying his skills, in 1909 the enterprising Lightner also finished embalming school in Nashville, Tennessee. It was not uncommon for carpenters to engage in the funeral business, for carpenters often made wooden coffins and sometimes supplied undertaking services. In 1911, Lightner established the Lightner Funeral Home at 127-129 E. Hargett Street. Funeral homes operated by black owners for black clients were a vital part of the community, as they offered important and dignified services for their clientele not always available otherwise. C. E. Lightner was the first licensed African American mortician in Raleigh.

The locations of Lightner’s construction projects and other enterprises in Raleigh reflect that during the early twentieth century, the city’s social geography displayed a trend prevalent in many southern (and northern) towns—a shift toward greater racial segregation in residential and commercial uses, as well as expansion in the size of the city. Although people of both races had once lived in many parts of town, in this period the north and west areas of Raleigh became increasingly white, and the southeastern and southern areas became increasingly black, a pattern encouraged in part by the presence of key black schools such as Shaw University at the south end of downtown and St. Augustine’s to the east. City directories of the period depict the pattern, with racial sectors becoming more and more defined in the 1910s and 1920s.

Lightner took a major role in the upbuilding of Raleigh’s black neighborhoods and commercial sectors. As members of Raleigh’s growing African American middle class established homes in the expanding south and southeastern neighborhoods of the city, C. E. Lightner and Brothers constructed many of their houses, including several along the southern blocks of Fayetteville Street near Shaw University and in nearby areas. Identified as the first house Lightner built in Raleigh is his 1907 family home, located at 419 South East Street in the heart of southeast Raleigh (it was demolished in 1990). According to Raleigh’s African American newspaper The Carolinian, the firm built homes for many prominent Raleigh black citizens whose addresses are identified from city directories: the African Americans as Professor Gaston A. Edwards House at 318 South Street (ca. 1908) for his teacher at Shaw who would become the state’s first black licensed architect; the Captain James E. Hamlin House at 730 Fayetteville Street (ca. 1908) for the pharmacist who founded Hamlin Drugstore, a community center that would survive as the oldest black drugstore in the state; the Dr. and Mrs. Lewyn Eugene and Mamie Roberts McCauley House (ca. 1910) at 8 North Tarboro Road; the Professor W. H. Fuller house (ca. 1910) on Worth Street near the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium for a prominent educator; and the John H. Branch House (ca. 1914) at 237 West Worth Street for the former principal of Washington High School in Raleigh, one of the first public high schools for black students in the state. Other works included residences for the Rev. George W. Moore (ca. 1918) at 748 Fayetteville Street; for Dr. Lovelace B. Capehart (1925), physician, on Davie Street; and for Rev. Moses Williams (1920s) at 739 Fayetteville Street. Although Lightner and Brothers designed and built residences mainly for African Americans, the company constructed at least one for a white client: a house ca. 1903- 1909 for William W. Robbins at 232 South Boylan Avenue in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights, a new suburb west of downtown restricted by deed to white residents. Robbins was an engineer with the Wake Water Works Company, Inc. As far as can be determined, none of these houses still stand.

C. E. Lightner is best known for designing and constructing key buildings that made East Hargett Street Raleigh’s prime African American business district—an example of the “black main streets” that developed in many communities during the early twentieth century. Historian Wilmoth Carter, who interviewed many local citizens for her study of early to mid-twentieth century Raleigh, The Urban Negro in the South, stated “The real establishment of East Hargett as a Negro business street is attributed primarily to one man”—meaning C. E. Lightner but not naming him. Carter quoted anonymously from Lightner’s account of his career from student to contractor and developer and his acknowledgment: “Every Negro who wanted to go into business in Raleigh wanted to get on East Hargett St. because we had built it up. . . . I really started it, and I’m not bragging, for I didn’t intend to do business there at first.” He had sought to have an office and funeral parlor on Fayetteville Street, but when that proved impossible, his projects hastened the definition of East Hargett as a prestigious black main street.

In 1910, Raleigh’s city directory showed East Hargett Street with a majority of white businesses and residences and only a few addresses identified (*) or (c) as African American ones. This was soon to change, as Lightner and others responded to the increasingly restrictive mores of Jim Crow segregation. During the 1910s Calvin and his brother Rayford, a talented mechanic, owned and operated Lightner Garage (auto repairs) at 129 E. Hargett Street. In 1919, C. E. Lightner and Brothers designed and built the Lightner Office Building at 125 East Hargett Street, which housed essential businesses that served a predominantly black clientele—dental and medical offices, apartments, beauty salons, a barber shop, and tailoring and cleaning businesses.

Especially important, in 1921 the company built the imposing Lightner Arcade and Hotel at 122 East Hargett Street. A landmark famed for miles around, the large brick commercial building contained dental and medical offices, a barber shop, a drugstore, an amusement emporium, the offices of the African American newspaper The Carolinian, the Harris Barber College, a haberdashery, a store, a ballroom, and meeting spaces and hotel rooms. When built, it was one of only two hotels in Raleigh that served African Americans. Along with the Lewis Hotel at 220 E. Cabarrus Street, the Lightner Arcade and Hotel was included in The Negro Motorist Green Book. When celebrities such as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington performed in the upstairs ballroom, they could also stay at the hotel, enabling celebrities to stay at the same location where they performed. The Lightner Arcade was destroyed by fire in 1970.

In 1921, C. E. Lightner and Brothers erected a Classical Revival-style headquarters for the Mechanics and Farmers Bank at 116 Parrish Street in Durham; it was designed by Durham architects Rose and Rose and is still standing. Mechanics and Farmers is the state’s oldest black-owned bank, established in 1908. The building also served as the headquarters for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, a mutual benefit association affiliated with the bank, which became the largest black-owned insurance business in the nation. A few years later, according to Wilmoth Carter, Lightner constructed a branch of Mechanics and Farmers Bank on East Hargett Street; it has been replaced.

The Lightner company also constructed civic and religious buildings. One was the Mary B. Talbert Home on East Davie Street, a residential facility built about 1939 for black working women. C. E. Lightner’s wife, Mamie, was one of the founders of the Talbert Home, an organization begun about 1923 and named for an African American woman from Oberlin, Ohio who was an educator and activist who fought for civil rights, women’s suffrage, anti-lynching laws, and international human rights. The only one of Lightner’s religious buildings known to survive is the Davie Street Presbyterian Church (1920s), a substantial brick edifice of Gothic Revival style, located at 300 East Davie Street.

From his early adulthood onward, C. E. Lightner held a variety of leadership positions. He was elected president of the statewide professional association of African American undertakers in 1912, and his brother R. H. Lightner was elected as a board member. C. E. was a stockholder in the Peoples Investment Company and chartered the Progressive Real Estate Company in March 1913. In 1925 the Raleigh Times (November 11, 1925) described the Progressive Real Estate Company as “the chief agency for realty transfers and building” in the African American business district of East Hargett Street. In the 1920s C. E. established the private Hillcrest Cemetery for the city’s black residents on the Lightner Farm property on Garner Road in Raleigh.

Despite the disfranchisement of most black men in the first half of the twentieth century, for a short time C. E. took a role in local politics, perhaps remembering his maternal grandfather’s legislative service and likely serving as a model for his son Clarence’s future role as Raleigh’s first black mayor. In 1919, C. E. Lightner was part of a ticket of candidates nominated by the “Twentieth Century Voters Club, a colored organization,” which proposed Dr. M. T. Pope for mayor, Lt. L. B. Capehart, Jr. (who had recently returned from military service during World War I) as commissioner for public safety; and C. E. Lightner as commissioner of public works. The president of the voters’ club acknowledged that the “negro ticket” would be “eliminated in the primary,” but stated that “the action was taken” to express the “feeling of the negroes of the city that they ought to have greater rights than are accorded them.” The club insisted that since the black people paid taxes, they should have some positions at city hall” (News and Observer, March 25, 1919). Their effort was part of a broader post World War II movement among returning black soldiers and others who sought greater opportunity for members of their race.

Although not elected to public office, C. E. Lightner continued his local leadership for many years and was awarded a number of community honors, including a citation by Washington High School’s Diversified Occupations class during Vocational Opportunity Week on March 17, 1949. He was a member of Davie Street Presbyterian Church and served on the church’s board of trustees for 62 years. He was also a Mason, a Grand Master of the Internal Order of the Odd Fellows, and president of the Shaw University Alumni Association for seventeen years.

C. E. Lightner died on May 21, 1960. He and his wife Mamie Lightner, who died in 1924, are buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Raleigh.

Wilmoth A. Carter, The Urban Negro in the South (1961).

Linda Simmons-Henry and Linda Edmisten, Culture Town: Life in Raleigh’s African American Communities (1993).

Sort Building List by:
  • C. E. Lightner House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner, builder
    Dates:

    1907

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    419 South East St., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential


  • Captain James E. Hamlin House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1908

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    730 Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    In 1910, the United States Census listed James E. Hamlin as a druggist who owned his own business, probably the Hamlin Drugstore that would stand on East Hargett Street for many years to come, operated by the same family.


  • Davie Street Presbyterian Church

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    1920

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    300 East Davie St., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    Standing

    Type:

    Religious


  • Dr. Lovelace B. Capehart House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    1925

    Location:
    Raleigh, Wake County
    Street Address:

    310 Davie St.

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    The United States Censuses of 1910 and 1920 listed Lovelace B. Capehart, Jr. as a medical doctor. His death certificate notes that he was born in Bertie County, N. C., a county where that family name was frequent.


  • Dr. and Mrs. Lewyn Eugene and Mamie Roberts McCauley House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1910

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    8 N. Tarboro Rd., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential


  • John H. Branch House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1914

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    237 W. Worth St., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    John H. Branch House was a principal of Washington High School in Raleigh, one of the first public high schools for black students in the state. The United States Census of 1910 listed him as a teacher in a city school.


  • Lightner Arcade and Hotel

    Contributors:
    C.E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    1921

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    122 E. Hargett St. Raleigh, Wake County, NC

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Commercial

    Images Published In:

    Linda Simmons-Henry and Linda Harris Edmisten, Culture Town: Life in Raleigh’s African American Communities (1993).
    Catherine W. Bishir, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood, III Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (1990).

    Note:

    The photograph of the Lightner Arcade in Architects and Builders in North Carolina shows it under construction with a group of men in front of it, presumably the builders and possibly Mr. Lightner.


  • Lightner Office Building

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    1919

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    125 E. Hargett St., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Commercial


  • Mary B. Talbert Home

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1939

    Location:
    Raleigh, Wake County
    Street Address:

    E. Davie St.,

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential


  • Mechanics and Farmers Bank

    Contributors:
    Rose and Rose , architects; C.E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    1921

    Location:
    Durham, NC, Durham County
    Street Address:

    116 Parrish St., Durham, Durham County, NC

    Status:

    Standing

    Type:

    Commercial

    Images Published In:

    Claudia Roberts [Brown], The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).


  • Professor Gaston A. Edwards House

    Contributors:
    C.E. Lightner, builder
    Dates:

    ca. 1908

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    318 South St., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    Gaston Alonzo Edwards, the state’s first black licensed architect and a teacher Shaw University, probably enabled C. E. Lightner to learn architectural as well as construction skills.


  • Professor W. H. Fuller House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1910

    Location:
    Raleigh, NC, Wake County
    Street Address:

    20 or 21 Worth St., Raleigh, Wake County

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    William H. Fuller was a teacher who became the principal of Washington High School (one of the first black high schools in the state) in the 1930s. The W. H. Fuller Elementary School was named for him.


  • Rev. George W. Moore House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1918

    Location:
    Raleigh, Wake County
    Street Address:

    748 Fayetteville St.

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    The Reverend George W. Moore was a minister at a Baptist Church.


  • Rev. Moses Williams House

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    1920

    Location:
    Raleigh, Wake County
    Street Address:

    739 Fayetteville St.

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential


  • William W. Robbins at 232 South Boylan Avenue in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights

    Contributors:
    C. E. Lightner and Brothers, contractors; Lightner, C. E (1878-1960), architect
    Dates:

    ca. 1903-1909

    Location:
    Raleigh, Wake County
    Street Address:

    232 S. Boylan Ave.,

    Status:

    No longer standing

    Type:

    Residential

    Note:

    The Robbins House was located in the white suburb of Boylan Heights, but its address indicates that it stood near the railroad bridge location and is no longer standing.


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