Past Times

Past Times: East Hargett Street was center of black life and business

Fred Carnage, a civil rights leader who in 1949 became the first black to be named to a local school board in North Carolina, died in 1988. He practiced law in Raleigh for 56 years.
Fred Carnage, a civil rights leader who in 1949 became the first black to be named to a local school board in North Carolina, died in 1988. He practiced law in Raleigh for 56 years. News & Observer File Photo

During the period of segregation, it was not uncommon for cities to have a separate district for black-owned businesses. For Raleigh, that area was East Hargett Street. In 1982, N&O reporter Beverly Mills wrote a profile of Raleigh’s “black main street.”

Frederick J. Carnage has practiced law at the Odd Fellows Building on East Hargett Street for so long that the owner refuses to accept rent. Strips of paint hang from the ceiling like limp flags as Carnage leaves his second floor office and heads for the Wake County Courthouse.

Across Hargett Street at Baker’s Shoe Store, William Johnson leans on the counter and watches Carnage make his daily pilgrimage down an almost-deserted sidewalk. In busier days gone by, the 70-year-old cobbler looked forward to a chance to stare out those windows.

“Hargett Street looked just like Fifth Avenue, New York,” Johnson said. “All up and down the sidewalk, the people were going in and out of Hamlin Drug Store, Mechanics & Farmers Bank, the barbershop. And on a Saturday night, there was always a dance in the Arcade Hotel and a line across the street for a movie at the Royal Theater.”

For blacks, East Hargett was the heart of Raleigh’s business district from about 1920 through the mid-1960s.…

Details of Hargett Street’s history, reinforcing the dates on cornerstones or a painted name half rubbed off a storefront window, live mostly on the lips of men like Carnage and Williams.

Carnage, Raleigh’s second black lawyer, well remembers 1933 as the year he opened his office in the Odd Fellows Building. Blacks looked to the gray stone structure as a landmark in those days. It was the first commercial building that blacks owned in Raleigh. Before then, they couldn’t get credit from the white banks. Even in 1907, several members of the Odd Fellows organization had to convince a white friend to front as a purchasing agent to skirt discrimination.

East Hargett Street, like other Negro main streets across the country, evolved as segregation laws hardened in the early part of the century. Here were the only public restrooms blacks could use and the only restaurants that would seat them. By the early 1930s, East Hargett had entered its prime as Raleigh’s main black business district.

That’s all gone now. Many of those restaurants are empty storefronts today, and the parking lots that replace the Arcade Hotel and the Royal Theater make East Hargett Street look like a snaggle-toothed smile. The decline of Hargett Street was the mirror image of its rise: As segregation disappeared Hargett Street’s patrons went elsewhere to shop and play.

But unlike many Negro main streets, which have been demolished to make room for freeways and shopping malls, East Hargett survived. Hargett Street is also one of the few that still operate largely as black business districts.…

Clarence C. Coleman, a pharmacist and co-owner of Hamlin Drug Co., and John M. Johnson bought the drugstore from the Hamlin family in 1957. The story has been passed down that the drugstore was started about 1915 when Capt. J.E. Hamlin was ordered to close his saloon. Although the original location is unknown, he moved it to the first floor of the Arcade Hotel when it was completed in 1921. The new owners constructed a new building for the drugstore next door to the Arcade in 1960.

The late Calvin E. Lightner, founder of Raleigh’s Lightner Funeral Home, once said he built the hotel because his wife got tired of him bringing so many out-of-town friends to their house to spend the night.…

Lightner, who died in 1960, is often credited with establishing Hargett Street as the center for black business. By the time he built the Arcade, Lightner was already a successful businessman. His funeral home was across the street on the first floor of the Lightner Building, which he built in 1909. Lightner was one of the first black men in Raleigh to be allowed to borrow money, according to Dr. Wilmouth Carter, a Raleigh author, and the Lightner building was the second black-owned building on East Hargett. Before Lightner developed East Hargett, most of the black trade was found on Wilmington Street.

“Every Negro who wanted to go into business in Raleigh wanted to get on East Hargett Street because we had built it up,” Lightner told Dr. Carter in an interview in 1960. “I really started it, and I’m not bragging, for I didn’t intend to do business there at first. When I started in business on East Hargett Street, there was only one building on the whole block that belonged to Negroes and that was the Odd Fellows building. The next colored business was a saloon.”

Lightner talked about the early days of Hargett Street while Dr. Carter was working on her doctoral dissertation at Shaw University. The interview is included in a book based on her work, published in 1961. The book, “The Urban Negro in the South,” documented the phenomenon of the Negro main street, using Hargett as an example.…

Black history lines Hargett Street. It housed a branch of the state’s first black insurance company, North Carolina Mutual, and still houses a branch of the first black bank, Mechanics & Farmers, both of which were founded in Durham at the turn of the century by black barbers. Barbers were the most successful black men of the times, and Dr. Carter wrote in her book that James B. Duke of Durham gave John Merrick the idea for starting his insurance company.…

Many blacks were glad to see black physicians and dentists locate in Raleigh. Dr. Charles Dunston was the first black dentist, and the second was Dr. George Evans. Evans and Dr. Lemuel T. Delany, a black physician, built the Delany-Evans Building, also called the Dental Building, on East Hargett in 1926.…

Mollie Houston Lee, a former librarian at Shaw University, started Raleigh’s first black library, Richard B. Harrison Library, in 1935 on the first floor of the Dental Building.

“I started it because Negroes didn’t have anywhere to go to get books,” said Mrs. Lee, 74, who lives in Durham. “I had to work very hard to get the people to use the library in the beginning. I’d take a market basket up and down the street passing out books. The Negroes didn’t know what a library was or what it was for.”

Until public schools were integrated, the Dental Building also housed the state Negro Division of Education, and Dr. John R. Larkins, the state’s special consultant for Negro welfare, worked there.

When blacks talk about why Hargett Street’s business declined, they almost always mention the downfall of the Arcade. Lightner was forced to sell his building after the Depression, said his daughter, Margaret Lightner Hayes of Raleigh. The N.C. Homemakers Association took over the building in 1947, and a major social gathering place for blacks was lost. The building burned in 1968.

Just as Dr. Carter predicted in her book, many blacks spread their trade to other parts of the city as integration advanced. Suburbs and neighborhood shopping centers hurt Hargett Street along with the rest of downtown.

“Hargett Street retains little of its original character,” Dr. Carter said in a recent interview. “The need for Hargett Street is no longer what it was. Not as many of the buildings are owned by Negroes.”

But many blacks are loyal to the businesses on Hargett Street, and many of those, including the Dental Building, Hamlin Drug Co., Baker’s Shoe Store and the bank, are still owned and operated by blacks.…

Anyone attempting to understand the evolution of East Hargett should know that the street was never exclusively black, said Dr. Charlotte Brown….

“Hargett Street was black and white like the rest of Raleigh and lots of other Southern cities until the Jim Crow laws,” Dr. Brown said. The N&O Feb. 28, 1982

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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