The first thing to know about James E. Lindsey, CEO, Lindsey Brothers Inc., Virginia Beach, Va., is that he’s been a plumber for 77 years. The 93-year-old heads into the office every day at the business he and his family started 57 years ago.
“I may not do a lot of work these days,” he admits. “But I am a plumber and plumbing has provided a great life for me and our family so it’s where I want to spend my time. I’m still part of the job, and I still enjoy it.”
The second thing to know is that while he may not have recognized it when he made a promise to God that the plumbing profession would turn out to be his profession, he was sent on that path nevertheless at a young age.
He was born straight into the Great Depression and grew up on a farm in Virginia. His mom, dad and eight brothers and sisters lived in a home with the floorboards spaced apart enough so that they could see the chickens scratching at the ground underneath. Kerosene lamps provided light and as far as plumbing goes, the closest thing to that were the bowls in the livestock stalls that filled up with fresh water whenever the cows pressed their muzzles against the treadles.
“When I was a little boy,” he says, “I promised the Lord that if he let me grow up and be a man, I was going to change that. I knew I might not be able to change everything, but I could try my best to change what I could.”
There’s more to know about him and we’ll get into a little of all that. But that promise he made plus some divine providence years later when he was looking for work, let alone the fact that he’s been a plumber longer than many other plumbing companies have been in business, are enough inspiration for us to name him as this year’s Contractor of the Year.
“His reputation is remarkable,” says Susan L. Milhoan, executive director of the PHCC of Virginia. “I don’t know anybody who refers to him as anything other than ‘Mr. Lindsey.’ ”
Our honor comes two years after the PHCC named Lindsey Brothers its Plumbing Contractor of the Year.
“Operating solely on the principle of treating others as you wish to be treated, Mr. Lindsey has given dozens of local residents a chance to get involved in the trades,” adds Milhoan, who nominated him for the national honor. “Many local tradesmen got their start at Lindsey Brothers and now own their own companies or work for larger businesses; often they still send customers to Lindsey Brothers.”
The company is well known for loaning equipment, labor and sharing services.
“There’s no competition with him,” Milhoan says. “It’s all collaboration.”
The reason, according to his daughter Jacquelyn Lindsey Wynn, Lindsey Brothers, COO, is he runs on faith and courage.
“My father believes you can do more working together than you can apart,” Wynn says.
Over almost six decades, Mr. Lindsey has built a successful business that’s nurtured his extended family through five generations. For many residents of the Hampton Roads metro region, Lindsey Brothers is a household name. Its fleet of commercial vehicles is easily recognized with “Jesus Never Fails” and quotes from scripture along the sides.
In addition, Mr. Lindsey has diligently given back to his community through numerous charitable efforts with local schools, grass roots organizations and even helps the next generation of skilled trades people learn about the plumbing and heating profession through the company’s own annual program.
Mr. Lindsey was born April 7, 1930, the third child born to Jeff and Jennie Lindsey. His family lived and worked on a sprawling truck farm called Hudgins Farms, growing kale, collards, spinach, strawberries, potatoes and watermelon, located in what was then called Princess Anne County and now Virginia Beach. (Back then there weren’t any major paved roads, but local readers might be able to get an idea of where the farm was by driving through the now busy intersection of Witchduck Road and Independence Boulevard.)
Hard work on the farm took priority over education and what schooling Mr. Lindsey did have was a four-mile walk to the Union Kempsville Baptist Church School, where he helped chop wood to heat the classroom. He never did receive a high school diploma or a GED, but he’s never lacked grit.
“By the time my dad was 11,” Wynn says, “instead of playing with toys, he was learning to drive a tractor and teaching the other men working the farm how to operate the machinery. I don’t think his feet could even touch the pedals.”
What ultimately became Lindsey Brothers had its genesis at the end of a bus ride from the farm to “the big city,” Norfolk, Va., that Mr. Lindsey took at 16.
His mother had told him he needed to look for work off the farm to augment the family finances.
“She didn’t tell me what kind of job I should get any more than I knew what kind of job I should get,” Mr. Lindsey says. “But I look back at that trip and just bless that day.”
He hadn’t walked off the bus more than five minutes when a man pulled his truck over to the curb and asked him if he wanted a job as a plumber’s helper.
“I didn’t know much about plumbing,” Mr. Lindsey adds, “other than those water bowls for livestock, but I did know enough to ask him how much it paid.”
The man told him the pay was 60 cents an hour.
“Now that caught my attention since on the farm we earned a dollar a day working from sunup to sundown,” Mr. Lindsey says. “So you can bet I agreed to be a plumber’s helper. I thought I was somebody, that’s for sure.”
And just like that, he started working for a man named T.H. Webb for his first plumbing job in 1946.
“The Lord knows how to put things together,” Mr. Lindsey says. “I got in the truck with him, and the next thing I know I’m in a basement getting a steam boiler ready for the winter. And he was real good at what he did, and I tried to be just as good by watching him and helping him.”
Over the next few years, Mr. Lindsey walked to the plumbing and heating business while he stayed in Norfolk with his aunt and uncle. While working during the day, he studied plumbing at Booker T. Washington High School, which offered vocational training after regular school hours. James earned his certificate in plumbing by the time he turned 18.
As Mr. Lindsey gained expertise in plumbing he encouraged his brothers to follow suit.
For a Black man living in the South at that time, none of this was an easy feat.
“People who looked like myself,” Mr. Lindsey says, “had to settle for being a plumber’s helper. They didn’t want Black people to learn everything there was to know about the plumbing trade. That’s why I first went to night school to learn more since I knew other people were making more money than me. And I wanted to learn and earn more.”
Other jobs followed and Mr. Lindsey ended up as a plumber and steamfitter at the Hampton Roads Army Terminal (which is now the site of the Norfolk Port facility).
Even with his experience, he had an impossible time securing a master license.
“It was hard for a Black man to get a plumbing license in Virginia, especially in Norfolk,” Mr. Lindsey says. “There were no licensed Black plumbers in the city in the early-1950s, and they did not want to help you get one. You could take the test, but you could not pass it.”
During the Korean War, Mr. Lindsey was drafted and served in the Army Medical Service Corps and the Transportation Corps for two years where he attained the rank of sargeant. Afterward, he regained his old job at the terminal, and later got a job at Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, Va.
He would go on to earn a Class A Contractor License from the state, which qualified him for work in any locale regardless of the effort to deter Blacks from acquiring permits.
“However, even with that, when I applied for jobs,” Mr. Lindsey adds, “they’d automatically say I wasn’t in the books. But then I asked them to look again, and there I was.”
By 1965, Mr. Lindsey and his brothers had established themselves as reputable plumbers and built the foundation for Lindsey Brothers.
Lindsey Brothers Begins
“By then I had a large family of my own,” James says. He and wife Nola would raise nine children. “And so being from a large family myself, our extended family decided that we were going to open our own plumbing and heating business.”
Lindsey Brothers officially opened in September 1966, formed by Mr. Lindsey; his parents; sisters Louise and Cora Lee; and brothers William, Freddie, Jesse, Connie and their wives. Uncle Francis and his son Sylvester also worked with the business.
“My brothers and I always had better hands than education,” Mr. Lindsey says. “We knew the plumbing business inside out and we wanted to use our skills to help our family and community.”
Mr. Lindsey would continue to work at the Langley Air Force base until 1970 and by then had acquired the all-important Master Plumbing Designation that such businesses needed for state certification and bonding.
Over time, the company expanded into heating oil distribution and ran three Mobil service stations (which they exited in 2012).
The company currently employs 15 people. Along the way, the family continued to contribute to the success of the business, including his children, nieces, nephews, cousins and great-granddaughter.
“And we’ve been in business ever since,” Mr. Lindsey says “Of course, I’ve lost my mother and father and some of my brothers and sisters. We’ve added new generations, but of the original family members who started the business, there’s still my sister and two brothers. And when I say two brothers, I mean me and Connie.” (Another sister, Cora, died last February.)
That would be “baby brother,” Connie, 83, who is a vice president of Lindsey Brothers. In addition to Jacquelyn, Mr. Lindsey’s son Larry, is president, and his other sons James Jr., Lloyd, and Joseph along with his other daughters, Katherine and Essie have all been involved. Katherine, a retired Army major completed her apprenticeship in 2016, and Joseph went on to graduate law school and was the only licensed master plumber in the Virginia General Assembly when he was elected to represent the 90th District; he resigned from the position in 2020 in order to accept an appointment to become a judge in the 4th Judicial District in Virginia. Mr. Lindsey’s great-granddaughter, Takeesha, a member of the latest generation, works in the front office.
Asked if participating in the business was a family tradition, Wynn explains, “He doesn’t insist on anything, but he does encourage. Strongly.”
In 2016, the Virginia Beach Department of Economic Development recognized Lindsey Brothers – then celebrating its 50th anniversary – as one of the oldest African-American plumbing and heating companies in the United States.
While helping to build the family business, Mr. Lindsey worked to maintain balance in his life. He’s been active in the community, professional, investment and civic organizations. At his church, Mr. Lindsey has served as a deacon, usher, and finance committee member. He is an avid Sunday School student and doesn’t like to miss it.
“I read the Bible a bit,” Mr. Lindsey adds, “and it says that if you do well in life, share it with others.”