Soul City (Warren Co., NC) was established as a planned community in 1970s under the direction of civil rights leader Floyd B. McKissick. Disenchanted with the systemic suppression, poverty, and racism typical after migration to northern urban centers, he envisioned a “black owned, black built town” that offered families affordable housing, jobs, and healthcare. The project broke ground in 1973 with the help in $14 million in federal funding under the Urban Growth and New Community Development Act. The city quickly developed to include homes on spacious properties, industrial centers, paved roads, and water and sewerage systems; at its height, it was home to 200 people.
However, then-Senator Jesse Helms implemented a series of newspaper smear campaigns against the project, questioned the appropriate use of federal funds, and launched related governmental investigations. The active opposition of the state government and inadequate residential and employment achievements resulted in a complete withdrawal of federal funding in 1979. Without powerful private investors, the project could not continue as planned. McKissick’s children and several of the original residents still live in Soul City.
The documentary Soul City tells the story of the project through archival footage and interviews with residents, both past and present.
Watch the film tonight at 10 pm (EST) on UNC-TV. It can also be viewed here, through the UNC-TV site, for free until February 3rd.
In addition to the film, the story of Soul City has also been documented through oral history interviews, archival collections, and both popular and scholarly publications. Many of these resources are available online (see below).
The next stop on the Diverse Communities bus tour Jessica and I went on was Parrish Street, where several African American businesses originated and prospered in the early 20th century. Known as “Black Wall Street”, several African American operated enterprises started on Parrish Street, such as the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (founded in 1898) and Mechanics & Farmers Bank. (founded in 1908).
This vibrant and thriving area was unfortunately decimated – along with other businesses and communities – with the creation of Highway 147 along with numerous other factors. While this did not completely eradicate black enterprise in Durham – NC Mutual and M&F are still thriving – it did physically destroy a significant part of the black neighborhood and in turn, an important part of history.
Mr. Reginald Jones, who works with the Parrish Street Project, talked with us about seeking to revitalize the Parrish Street area. The goal is to commemorate the important legacy of Black Wall street while attracting new businesses to the area to encourage economic revitalization.
Echoing Jessica’s sentiments in an earlier post, it was interesting for the two of us as archivists to be involved in this conversation. We are generally concerned with the preservation of history. It’s important to think about Parrish Street’s heritage in the context of urban planning and development. The urban planning students asked compelling questions about working with the community in order when planning any sort of redevelopment or conceiving any project in a neighborhood. The importance of preserving and celebrating the cultural heritage of a particular area was not lost in the conversation of burgeoning neighborhood development.
The SHC has a number of collections that relate to black owned businesses on Parrish Street and throughout the South. One example is the William Jesse Kennedy Papers, who was the fifth president of NC Mutual Life Insurance.