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).
Contributed by Maurice Hines, Class of 2016, School of Library and Information Science at North Carolina Central University.
All of the founding towns of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA) were founded in the mid-to-late 19th century and were profoundly influenced by the self-reliance philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Similarly, in North Carolina, there was a town founded by African Americans in the midst of the Civil Rights Era with its own utopian vision known as Soul City.
Soul City was founded in 1971 in Warren County off of Interstate 85 near the Virginia border. Its brainchild was famed Civil Rights leader, Floyd B. McKissick, a North Carolina native who witnessed the problem of Black out migration from rural areas to urban epicenters in North Carolina and other Southern states, as well as to northern cities. He believed that changes in farming practices and the attraction of better-paying jobs in the cities led to this migration. However, Blacks confronted different challenges in cities, where they competed with others for the same jobs in addition to racial and economic discrimination.
McKissick’s solution was to devise a city located at a distance from any major urban area that would be Black-owned and operated while also being open to all races. This was McKissick’s way of consolidating “Black power,” by combining Black economic and political power with the consciousness of self-determination and working for a greater good.
To this aim, he strategically made alliances while campaigning for the election and re-election of Republican President Richard Nixon in the 1970’s. Nixon would later pass the Urban Growth and Community Development Act that allowed the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to guarantee $14 million toward the establishment of Soul City. In addition, he sought to make alliances within the Black business community to invest in the project. He also consulted local universities and the federal and state governments on various municipal matters.
McKissick’s vision mirrored that of Booker T. Washington and the towns associated with his legacy. Soul City was to be a catalyst for development in an economically depressed region. It was to be a “Free-standing” city that encouraged Black and other minority ownership. That is, a city in which residents had true freedom and opportunity for upward mobility; one that did not depend on others who have established themselves, rather one that was self-sustaining and an asset to others. In his words:
“The state of North Carolina will benefit economically by having a project like this. A project like this appeals to the self-interest of people. It opens thousands of opportunities, not just full employment, but upward mobility of employment to agree with the psychological man and his ego, to a great extent. Rather than throwing people together in a highly competitive society where there are only four or five leadership roles, Soul City opens up thousands of leadership roles…”
— Interview with Floyd B. McKissick, conducted by Jack Bass on December 6, 1973. Interview A-0134. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Though Soul City did not succeed at meeting its goals due to years of litigation and negative press, its legacy demonstrates how African Americans have interpreted and
reinterpreted principles of self-determination from one generation to the next.
For more information on Soul City, check out these articles (#1, and #2), book (#4), video (#5), and pamphlet (#3) published in the North Carolina Collection.
Biles, Roger. “The Rise and Fall of Soul City: Planning, Politics, and Race in Recent America.” Journal of Planning History 4, no. 1 (February 1, 2005): 52–72. doi:10.1177/1538513204269993.