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The Lost Plan for a Black Utopian Town

Soul City in North Carolina was designed to build Black wealth and address racial injustice. Then its opponents lined up.

A highway sign for Soul City on Route 1.
Greg Allikas/Courtesy of Henry Holt and Co.
A highway sign on Route 1 points the way to Soul City.

In 1946, a young Black G.I. named Floyd McKissick stood amid the bombed-out rubble of Tourcoing in northern France. His unit was helping rebuild the city, and he wondered why Americans couldn’t embark on a similar task of rebuilding neighborhoods blighted by segregation at home. He would return to the United States only a few months later, but the announcement of U.S. aid to Europe under the Marshall Plan in 1948 got him thinking further. What if rebuilding involved not only bricks and mortar but also economic opportunity? 

Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia
by Thomas Healy
Henry Holt and Co., 448 pp., $28.99

As Thomas Healy shows in his stirring new book, Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, McKissick never forgot his experience in war-torn Europe. In 1969, he announced that he was building a new community dedicated to Black economic empowerment, located on the site of a former slave plantation in rural North Carolina. Soul City would be open to residents of all races but designed to help Black residents through a combination of cultural uplift, jobs, and egalitarian social policies. Far from a quixotic vision or separatist fantasy, Soul City attracted interest from across the political spectrum: McKissick secured $14 million in federal urban renewal funding to bankroll the project, thanks in part to his assiduous courting of the Nixon administration. Indeed, the question that lingers around Soul City is not why it failed, but how it came so close to becoming reality. 

Floyd McKissick was no stranger to audacity. A native of Asheville, North Carolina, he made his name as an activist with the Congress for Racial Equality, a major civil rights organization that swung in an increasingly radical direction after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But McKissick wasn’t content with direct action and community organizing. With his wartime memories in mind, he sought to create the conditions for Black prosperity by building new communities from scratch.

The time was ripe. McKissick pitched Soul City as the solution to a range of issues grouped under the heading of postwar “urban crisis.” By the late 1960s, conditions in the nation’s cities were reaching breaking point. The influx of dollars provided for federal urban renewal did little to stem either white flight to the suburbs (subsidized by federal mortgage programs) or the marginalization of Black communities in what would be deemed the “inner city.” Designed as a partial solution to urban ills, President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 New Communities Act provided federal support for the establishment of new towns. While the federal government imagined these communities as white, McKissick saw an opening. Soul City would address urban deprivation by reversing decades of out-migration from the rural South. And it would embody the self-sufficiency prized by the new face of the civil rights movement—Black Power. 

Building on historian Robert O. Self’s work on postwar Oakland, Healy shows how economic empowerment and community building formed a key tenet of Black Power ideology. McKissick insisted that Soul City represented neither a step back toward segregation nor a domestic version of the separatism espoused by Black nationalists like Malcolm X. Instead, it would be a way to ensure that Black Americans, too, got a share in the American dream.

McKissick’s vision attracted criticism. Most trenchant was the charge that Soul City amounted to working within the existing capitalist system, a conservative approach not worthy of McKissick’s radical past. But McKissick proved adept at rebuffing these critiques—as is Healy himself. In his initial plans for Soul City, McKissick sought to implement a form of what he called “radical capitalism,” where corporations would be kept in check by employee trusts. Moreover, he believed that Black Americans had to acquire a piece of the pie before turning to slicing it up in a more equitable way. “We intend to work, and to work hard,” he declared. “But we do not intend merely to work. We intend to own.”

A tract plan of the first phase of Soul City shows Green Duke Village and the industrial park, with a man-made lake separating them.
Floyd McKissick Papers/Courtesy of Henry Holt and Co.

Working out of his Harlem brownstone, and later from a trailer on the site of Soul City, McKissick negotiated tirelessly to make his dream a reality. Soul City boasted not only the backing of the federal government but support from urban planners at the University of North Carolina, Howard University, and MIT. With a loyal staff of professionals, Black and white, at his side, McKissick secured an initial loan from Chase Manhattan bank and hired prominent consultants to study Soul City’s economic base. Ground was broken in November 1973, with the community’s first homes going up and new roads bisecting the red Carolina clay.

But McKissick’s dalliance with Nixon, entered into in a bid to shore up promised federal support, ultimately produced little political capital. McKissick and Soul City became victims of the rightward swing in the Republican Party, which saw Nixon-era liberals and moderates sidelined while figures like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms became kingmakers. An opponent of bloated government spending, Helms set his sights on destroying Soul City. When the Raleigh News & Observer launched a series of reports alleging mismanagement by McKissick and his team, Helms struck, calling for a federal audit that delayed the much-needed arrival of corporate tenants to Soul City. Add the oil crisis, the strings that the Department of Housing and Urban Development attached to McKissick’s funding, and increasingly hostile (and implicitly racist) media coverage, and Soul City was doomed. In June 1980, three HUD officials walked into McKissick’s office to break the news. His dream was over. 

Why revisit an episode like Soul City? Healy states that his goal “is not to assign blame. It is to understand the forces that led to its failure and the lessons it offers for the pursuit of racial equality today.” The real factor behind the project’s demise was not simply racism, he contends, but the suffocating grasp of white power—“the control of white society over the lives of Black people.”

For McKissick, nothing was off-limits if it moved him closer to fulfilling his dream. At the very moment when the racialized notion of a “culture of dependency” in America’s urban neighborhoods was gaining currency in conservative political circles, McKissick invoked this stereotype to compel Black voters to switch their allegiance to the Republican Party. Blind loyalty to the Democrats, he contended, was like attachment to a “sugar tit”—something meant to pacify without giving nourishment. 

But despite this act of extreme political shape-shifting—and despite assembling a genuine multiracial coalition that bore Nixon’s own stamp of approval—McKissick still ran up against the forces of white power. As Healy painstakingly shows, McKissick did almost everything right, and the things he did wrong would not have doomed a white developer. The tale of Soul City thus stands as a powerful—particular, vivid, and easily grasped—rebuke to narratives that deny the effects of structural racism.

Like many good authors, Healy sometimes overstates the pioneering nature of his work—his claim that Soul City has been “almost completely forgotten” is somewhat undercut by a scrupulous and lengthy footnote that cites, among other accounts, an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible; in 2016, Soul City was featured in The Guardian’s “The Story of Cities” series. And Healy’s insistence on including detailed sketches of even minor figures can lead to unexpected shifts in tone, with languid biographical anecdotes unfolding mid-chapter. Yet McKissick’s efforts deserve to be recounted at length, and Healy’s passionate and humane account restores Soul City to its place in histories of civil rights and urban renewal alike. 

As well as giving McKissick his long-awaited due, Healy’s work points to two broader conclusions. The first is that the commitment to anti-Black policies ran so deep that white politicians and officials were willing to sabotage Black initiatives like Soul City even if it meant lowering outcomes for white populations, as well. Perhaps Soul City’s biggest achievement was the opening of HealthCo, an integrated health center that served patients across two counties in an area where medical care was limited. HealthCo weathered Soul City’s demise, only closing in 2009. If Soul City had gone forward, it would have brought even greater benefits to the surrounding area, with plans for infrastructure, including sewage, water, and education systems to serve the entire community. Despite these advances, Helms and the News & Observer shut it down. Reinforcing racial hierarchies was more important than the welfare of the population.          

Healy’s second conclusion links Soul City to the hope of Black mobility—both social mobility and the ability to move freely across state and county lines. Jane Groom, a secretary for McKissick Enterprises and one of Soul City’s first employees, traveled down to North Carolina from Harlem, loading her five children in the car and driving through the night. The freedom she found in Soul City—in a community of activists and professionals working to realize a shared dream—she would recall, was “a blessing.” Healy contrasts these joyful beginnings with Soul City’s grim epilogue: the conversion of Soul Tech I, one of the office buildings on the Soul City site, to a medium-security prison in 2000. In the spot where McKissick imagined Black empowerment, majority-Black prisoners, shipped in from other states, make janitorial supplies.

Soul City makes a case for the importance of space to the project of Black emancipation—space to dream, space to grow. The book’s final chapters, which recount McKissick and his staff’s desperate attempts to save their city, are deeply moving. McKissick had imagined that Soul City’s streets would reflect the project’s visionary spirit, with roads named for Nat Turner and Dred Scott. Now Turner Circle and Scott Circle lead only to dead ends.