America has long been an incubator for Utopian experiments, the husks of which are littered throughout the country. Among them is Soul City, in rural North Carolina. It was conceived in 1969 by Floyd McKissick, a civil-rights maverick who viewed economic empowerment as the most viable means for uplifting Black people. McKissick saw Soul City as a chance to not only champion “Black capitalism,” but also as an opportunity to eradicate the social ills plaguing overpopulated urban areas.
If it had succeeded, Soul City might have served as a blueprint for future cities. Instead, after a decade, it went bankrupt.
In Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia, law professor Thomas Healy charts the magnificent rise and fall of Soul City, with particular attention to how things went south. It all started with a lot of unplowed land.
In the 1960s, L.B.J.’s Great Society programs ushered in a suite of federal legislation designed to eradicate poverty, including the New Communities Act, which aimed in part to build freestanding cities to offset urban overcrowding. The New Communities Act caught McKissick’s eye. Although government support was antithetical to the economic independence he hoped to achieve, no one else could foot the eight-figure bill.
Shortly after breaking ground, Soul City faced a Catch-22: “Just as residents would not move to Soul City unless there were jobs,” writes Healy, “companies would not locate in Soul City unless there were skilled workers to run their factories and safe, attractive neighborhoods.” McKissick turned to a “a strategy of concurrent development, building Soul City at the same time as he recruited residents and industry.”
With so many moving parts, if one piece fell through, the entire enterprise was at risk of collapsing.
“Just as residents would not move to Soul City unless there were jobs, companies would not locate in Soul City unless there were skilled workers to run their factories.”
The situation was made doubly precarious due to the fact that McKissick was a Black man trying to wrest power from a white majority. In particular, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative, and Pat Stith, an investigative reporter, took umbrage at McKissick’s audacity. Helms proved to be a thorn in McKissick’s side in Washington, but it was Stith who would put the nail in the coffin.
From the outset, McKissick battled libel in the press. Reporters portrayed Soul City as a radical separatist project and charged McKissick with “fleec[ing] the government for personal gain,” writes Healy. “The only thing mainstream media seemed to fear more than the failure of Soul City was the possibility that it might succeed.” With a nose for government corruption and Pulitzer ambitions, Stith embarked on a one-man crusade, casting Soul City as a nepotistic, mismanaged enterprise designed to enrich no one but McKissick himself. McKissick dismissed the reporting as a “hatchet job” and was largely exonerated by a federal audit, but a second series of articles, authored by Stith in the spring of 1979 and rehashing similar issues, proved fatal. That summer, HUD pulled the plug on Soul City. So far, the city had mustered 124 full-time residents, 34 housing units, 135 jobs, and a health clinic.
The story of Soul City is darkly ironic. Before McKissick purchased the land, it had once been a slave plantation and was later owned by a segregationist legislator. As late as 1968, a nearby highway billboard welcoming visitors read, You Are in the Heart of Klan Country. Rather than shy away from this area shot through with white supremacy, McKissick had ambitions of Black entrepreneurs prospering on land where slaves once toiled, that a city built by and for Black people would one day stand tall on this desecrated ground.
Today, it is the site of a medium-security prison.
Connor Goodwin is a New York City–based writer