Earlier this year I took part in an online event focusing on “Visions of Black-led Communities.” 1 One of the communities explored in the two days of panel discussions and documentary screenings was Soul City; and as quickly became apparent, most of those attending the sessions had never heard of the place and knew nothing about the extraordinary efforts of a leading Black activist, a veteran of the civil rights movement, to build a multiracial new town in the Piedmont region of North Carolina half a century ago.
The new book Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia is thus all the more timely. Thomas Healy, a law professor and author of an earlier book on free speech, 2 has produced a riveting narrative that tracks the history of Soul City from its heady beginnings in the late 1960s, to its impressive progress in the ’70s, to its sorrowful and anticlimactic demise in the early ’80s. “Soul City,” he writes, “was one of the most ambitious and high-profile projects to emerge from the civil rights era. It was covered extensively by the local and national press, featured on NBC’s Today show, studied at Harvard Business School, and watched closely by university planning departments around the country.” 3 Inevitably, then, the story of Soul City is not only about the place itself but also about its disappearance from cultural memory and historical record.
The story of Soul City is not only about the place itself but also about its disappearance from cultural memory and historical record.
Throughout the book Healy balances archival research with tenacious reporting, carefully situating Soul City within the roiling racial and cultural politics of postwar America. Soul City was the brainchild and vision of Floyd McKissick, Sr., and as becomes clear, the story of the town and its creator are inseparable. Born in 1922 in Asheville, North Carolina, McKissick came to understand early on that he was, as he wrote in the opening lines of an unfinished autobiography, “Black, first. American, second.” 4 It was his youthful experience of the systemic racism of Jim Crow that inspired him to study law, and, more than that, to oppose existing institutional inequities: while enrolled at North Carolina College of Law, an all-Black institution, he brought suit against the University of North Carolina for its discriminatory admissions policies. The case was argued, successfully, by Thurgood Marshall, then lead attorney of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and McKissick became the first Black alumnus of the state’s flagship law school. After graduating, he set up an office in Durham and was soon representing scores of plaintiffs who were challenging segregationist practices. All the while the young attorney was becoming a forceful presence in the rising civil rights movement, organizing sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides on southern highways, and speaking at protest rallies along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, James Farmer, and other emerging leaders.
By the mid-1960s, McKissick had become national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, one of the “big five” civil rights organizations, then at the height of its influence. 5 Yet as the decade wore on, he became, along with other movement leaders, increasingly impatient with the slow pace of change, the frustratingly partial victories of civil rights legislation. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, McKissick became a vocal proponent of Black Power and its ethos of racial pride, political representation, and economic autonomy. For McKissick this last component was especially important. “Unless the Black Man attains economic independence, any ‘political independence’ will be an illusion,” he wrote in Three-Fifths of a Man, his 1969 book on the Black liberation struggle. “White intimidation and control, especially in the ghettoes and the rural South, will continue as long as the Blacks are economically dependent.” 6
It was this focus on economic power that drove the founding of Soul City. And, as McKissick well understood, it was this same aspiration that had motivated earlier Black activists, including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, who had made similar arguments about economic strength as a crucial benchmark of racial progress. “Black leaders had … long recognized the leverage that economics gave them when demanding equal treatment,” Healy writes. “It was not the moral argument for integration that won the day after Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the front of a bus; it was the financial pain inflicted on Montgomery when Black residents boycotted the city’s transit system.” 7
McKissick was proposing to build a multiracial utopia in a region that advertised itself as ‘the heart of Klan country.’
In January 1969, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., McKissick formally announced that he would be developing a new city in Warren County, North Carolina. The city would be called Soul City and it would be “built and owned by Black people.” 8 The announcement was widely covered by national newspapers and television networks, which immediately recognized the courage and audacity of the vision. McKissick was proposing to build a new city from the ground up in an impoverished and depopulated rural county with few roads and antiquated infrastructure; he was foreseeing a multiracial utopia in a region that advertised itself as “the heart of Klan country.” Indeed, the new town would be located on a couple thousand rolling acres that had once been the site of a tobacco plantation worked by almost a hundred enslaved people. For McKissick, this made for what Healy describes as a “satisfying symbolism.” 9
To read the history of the dozen years during which Floyd McKissick and a group of dedicated colleagues struggled to build Soul City is at once exhilarating and harrowing. Even as we know the project would ultimately be thwarted, it seemed so often tantalizingly possible. McKissick may have been a neophyte developer, but after years on the national scene he was politically astute and deeply connected. With the assistance of longtime allies in the federal government, McKissick’s fledgling development corporation received a $14 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To ensure the continuity of federal support, the longtime civil rights leader would even cultivate what seemed the unlikeliest of alliances; in the early ‘70s he switched his party affiliation from Democratic to Republican and became one of the most prominent Blacks to endorse Richard Nixon in his reelection campaign. Healy describes the strange political calculus at play here, as McKissick overcame his antipathy towards the candidate whom he’d called “one of the nation’s leading proponents of law and order — racist style,” 10 and Nixon sought to cultivate voters by appealing to the goals of “Black capitalism” — a coded allusion to his support for “rugged individualism” and “entrepreneurialism” at the expense of systemic social welfare programs.
McKissick and his associates formed a strong connection to the principles and practices of mid-century town planning.
With funding approved, planning for Soul City proceeded apace. To design the new town, McKissick and his team had already hired the New York-based architectural firm Ifill Johnson Hanchard and the urban planner Harvey Gantt, then newly graduated from MIT. They also consulted extensively with James Rouse, the influential developer of Columbia, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia. Through their attendance at what some called “Rouse University,” a series of seminars led by the developer, McKissick and his associates formed a strong connection to the principles and practices of mid-century town planning. Rouse’s argument that intensively planned new towns were “the next America,” 11 a solution to the nation’s “urban crisis,” found a receptive audience in McKissick, who conceived of his own new town as an antidote to “over-crowded and decaying cities,” a place where frustrated northerners, especially Blacks with southern roots, could make a fresh start in the region. 12
By the middle of the decade, the Soul City Company was clearing land, paving roads, installing power lines, and digging water systems. They’d built Soultech I, a manufacturing plant, and HealthCo, a health care center. They’d started planning a housing subdivision called Green Duke Village. The name was chosen as a “deliberate reminder,” in Healy’s words, of the legacy of William Duke, the tobacco planter who had established the old plantation; but the streets were named for Black luminaries including the abolitionist David Walker and Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 13
Meanwhile several dozen employees of the company were already on site, living in trailers near the ruined old plantation house; these early residents included McKissick and his wife and daughter, who, as Healy puts it, traded in their Harlem brownstone “for a yellow trailer on the edge of a cornfield.” 14 The new city started to gain attention, too. “During one four-month period in 1974,” Healy writes, “Soul City welcomed nearly five hundred visitors, most from the South and Northeast, but some from as far away as Colorado and California.” 15 A couple of years later the nascent city, with about a hundred residents, threw a Bicentennial party, staged a Miss Soul City pageant, and celebrated the winter holidays with an elaborate parade. Soon McKissick and his wife moved from the trailer to a spacious ranch-style house across from the site of the planned subdivision. No wonder that in those years the activist-turned-developer dared to hope that Soul City would, by the turn of the millennium, reach a population of 50,000; that it would attract serious and sustained financial and corporate investment and grow into a real city with schools and churches, factories and hospitals, art galleries and hotels and public parks and swimming pools.
But the early successes soon gave way to growing frustration and chronic delays. Projects fell behind schedule, investors grew nervous, potential residents were discouraged. And, ominously, Soul City became the subject of sustained and negative investigation from the Raleigh-based News & Observer, then the most influential newspaper in North Carolina. To McKissick’s dismay, the paper published a series of articles attacking Soul City for what it described as “special treatment,” and the inappropriate use of federal funds. Although the News & Observer in those years was home to reporters who were advocates of civil rights and racial equality, its editors were wary of the demands of Black Power, and what they construed as the “separatism” of Soul City. 16
‘Floyd,’ said Jesse Helms to McKissick during a chance encounter in the Capitol Rotunda, ‘I want you to know I’m going to kill Soul City.’
Even more damaging than the News & Observer’s coverage was the unceasing hostility of Jesse Helms, then the state’s newly elected junior senator. It was Helms who’d once described the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever produced in Congress,” and, after arriving in Washington, he made his animosity towards Soul City brutally clear. “Floyd,” he said, during a chance encounter with McKissick in the Capitol rotunda, “I want you to know I’m going to kill Soul City.” 17 To this end he was instrumental in pushing federal authorities to conduct an audit of the project. That the audit found no wrongdoing would prove to be merely a pyrrhic victory, for the protracted investigation raised skepticism and halted momentum. By the end of the decade, HUD announced that it was withdrawing support for Soul City, in effect foreclosing on the young development. On the Senate floor, Helms, who had never once visited the place, gloated: “It is high time … that the Congress of the United States realize that the hard-pressed American taxpayers are sick and tired of paying for foolish dreams.” 18 In January 1981, Soul City was sold at auction for $1.5 million; the purchaser, ironically enough, was the federal government.
Could Soul City have succeeded in a nation struggling, then as now, with the legacies of human slavery and Jim Crow?
Why did Soul City fail? In some sense the outcome can be seen as almost inevitable: it is extraordinarily difficult to plan, develop, and construct a new city. Soul City had been funded by a division of HUD called the New Cities Administration and, as it turned out, almost none of the new cities it supported were successful. “Of the thirteen new towns approved for loan guarantees,” Healy writes, “the government had foreclosed on nine and left three more on the verge of bankruptcy. The details of each failure varied, but the broad outlines were the same: inadequate funds, halfhearted support from HUD, overly optimistic projections, and an economic climate that made large-scale real estate a losing proposition.” 19 In retrospect this was an early instance of the neoliberal mentality that was then ascendant: underfund a public program to the point where it cannot meet its goals, and then, when it fails to do so, defund it entirely. Or, as McKissick lamented, in a rueful and defiant interview with the Washington Post: “It’s like cutting off a man’s hands and then condemning him because he can’t pick up anything.” 20
If the odds were long for any new town, they were near impossible for Soul City. To some degree the difficulties were heightened by its location; McKissick was attempting to emulate the new towns created by James Rouse in the prosperous suburbs of Washington, D.C., yet Soul City enjoyed none of their geographic or demographic advantages. But the deeper issues were historical and cultural. So perhaps the question about failure needs to be reframed: Could Soul City have succeeded in a nation struggling, then as now, with the legacies of human slavery and Jim Crow? It is telling that the overtly racist Jesse Helms would soon emerge as one of the most powerful politicians in the Republican party, at one point leading a sixteen-day filibuster against the creation of Martin Luther King Day. It is maddening that he would go on to become the longest-serving U.S. senator in North Carolina history, and that one of the unsuccessful challengers for his seat was Harvey Gantt, the Soul City planner who’d since gone into politics and been elected the first Black mayor of Charlotte. 21
Of the many obstacles Soul City confronted, the most confounding had to do with the name. For some investors, it was too ‘poetic,’ or more bluntly, ‘too Black.’
Of the many obstacles Soul City confronted in its brief heyday, perhaps the most confounding had to do with the name. According to Healy, its origins are uncertain, but the name seems to have emerged early on, largely as a reflection of the contemporaneous use of “soul” to describe diverse aspects of Black culture, from food to music. Whatever the source, McKissick grew attached to it, and remained so even as he came to realize that the name was an impediment for some investors and industry executives, who complained it was too “poetic” or “unconventional,” or more bluntly, “too Black.” The name also raised concerns that Soul City would be a separatist community, an “all-black city,” in the words of a News & Observer reporter, even a “bastion of racial segregation,” in the words of another North Carolina editorial. 22 For his part, McKissick always insisted that Soul City would welcome people of all races, but that it would be developed and run by Blacks; that it would be “black-inspired,” “black-built,” and “black-oriented.” 23 What mattered to him was not any particular racial composition; what Floyd McKissick wanted was for Blacks to call the shots. As Healy writes: “The debate over the name was part of a deeper struggle over control and autonomy, over whose identity the city would reflect. McKissick was determined to make Soul City a monument to Black achievement. That would only happen, he believed, if the name reflected the role Black people played in building and sustaining it.” 24
In poignant opening and closing chapters, Healy carries the story of Soul City up to the present. Today Soul City is an unincorporated town with a few dozen residents living in Green Duke Village; Healy describes the unfinished subdivision as looking “like the set of a movie that had been left behind.” The old plantation manor house still stands, derelict and decaying. The health care center, long out of business, has been vandalized; there is a “barely used” cemetery. 25 But one structure from the old days remains in use. The 72,000-square-foot Soultech I, constructed to incubate industries, is now the Corrections Enterprises Janitorial Products Plant, a profitable manufacturer of detergent and disinfectant, whose workers are prisoners at the nearby Warren Correctional Institute. As with many struggling communities in recent years, the desire for investment of any kind made Warren County willing to accept the prison project; in this light the transformation of Soultech I could be seen as a practical reuse of vacant infrastructure. Nonetheless, as Healy writes, “The irony is not hard to grasp.” A building that had been constructed “to promote Black economic freedom” had become a carceral facility, “staffed by inmates earning about fifteen cents an hour.” But at least, Healy continues, “Floyd McKissick didn’t live to see this.” 26
As Soul City was nearing its end, McKissick wrote to an old friend, ‘Do you think we have made very much progress? Do you think times have changed any?’
Following the foreclosure, McKissick would continue to live in his house in Soul City for another decade, until his death, from cancer, in 1991. His last years were busy. He returned to the practice of law and was appointed a judge in North Carolina’s Ninth Judicial District (the first Black to hold the position). He earned a degree in divinity from Shaw University and was ordained a preacher. And he remained politically engaged, participating in an influential protest against toxic dumping in Warren County that would galvanize the environmental justice movement. 27 But the years were hard, too, and friends described McKissick as “weary and diminished.” 28 At one low point, as Soul City was nearing its end, he wrote to an old friend, someone who’d also been involved in civil rights and housing: “Do you think we have made very much progress? Do you think times have changed any? Sometimes I think it’s only the personalities that change and nothing else.” 29
The question of progress, or the lack of it, informed the event on Black-led communities, too. The story of Soul City is clearly relevant to current debates about the continuing legacies of structural racism and White supremacy, and also to the fierce political battles happening right now in Congress about the use of public investment to build capacity in low-wealth communities. It’s been more than half a century since Floyd McKissick announced his plans for a new city that would be “a model community, economically sound and free of racism.” 30 Yet we are still awaiting that new community. On the first day of the event, after a screening of the 2016 documentary Soul City, the geographer Danielle Purifoy, now on the faculty of University of North Carolina, moderated a discussion between me and Floyd McKissick, Jr., who followed his father into the practice of law and has long been active in North Carolina politics. In the midst of our conversation, Purifoy poignantly captured the essence of what was at stake with Soul City, and what is still at stake in the pursuit of intentional Black communities in America, when she said, simply: “We want freedom to be a place.”