The Derailed Dream of Soul City

Charlotte native’s new book examines the bold plans and discarded promise of a planned Black city
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Soul City was a planned community on a former tobacco plantation in rural Warren County, the brainchild of lawyer and civil rights leader Floyd McKissick (below). Courtesy Henry Holt and Company/ Metropolitan Books.

A new book by Seton Hall University law professor and Charlotte native Thomas Healy, Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia (Metropolitan Books, $29.99), traces the efforts of lawyer and civil rights leader Floyd McKissick to establish a unique community on a former tobacco plantation in rural northeastern North Carolina. McKissick’s idea was a planned town open to anyone but specifically intended to improve the lives and economic prospects of Black people—and Soul City’s development, which began in 1969 and followed a master plan by a young architect and planner named Harvey Gantt, drew financial support from surprising quarters, including the Nixon Administration.

Soul City barely got off the ground, and the reasons why—racism, paternalism, an ingrained reluctance of white institutions to invest in an endeavor by and for Black people—obstruct economic progress for racial minorities as thoroughly now as they did a half-century ago. We talked with Healy, 51, a Charlotte Catholic and UNC Chapel Hill graduate who started his career as a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, and Gantt about the book, the project, and how they might illuminate issues that remain fresh today. Answers have been edited for space and clarity.

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Floyd McKissick. Courtesy Henry Holt and Company/ Metropolitan Books.

THOMAS HEALY

What led you to write Soul City?

Soul City had always been in the back of my mind since I first heard about it, and after I published my first book, I was making a list of potential topics for a second book, and I put Soul City on the list. I started reading more about it and realized that the reason that it didn’t succeed had a lot to do with my former newspaper and a lot to do with (the late U.S. Senator) Jesse Helms. It struck me as a very poignant story that had been forgotten. This is also right around the time of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown (in 2014).

When I first heard about Soul City (in 1991), it was right around the time of the Rodney King beating. That was sort of a moment of racial reckoning in the country, and I returned to it at another moment of racial reckoning right after the killing of Michael Brown. When I thought about Ferguson and the fact that the population was two-thirds Black and yet whites controlled every aspect of the town, it reminded me a lot of what Warren County looked like when Floyd McKissick arrived, and also of what McKissick was trying to achieve, which was to give Black people control over their own lives. I just thought the parallels between Ferguson and Warren County in 1969 were really interesting.

 

What makes this story relevant today?

Essentially, what McKissick was trying to do back then was the same thing that the residents in Ferguson were trying to do in 2014—take control over their lives and acquire a measure of power. If you look at the economic situation of African Americans today, they’re, on average, not much better than they were in 1969. The average wealth of African American families is still about one-tenth of a white family’s, and the unemployment rate is still double the white unemployment rate. There obviously have been success stories within the Black community, but on average, the economic gap between whites and Blacks has hardly budged.

McKissick’s view was that Black people would not have political independence until they had economic independence. If you’re vulnerable economically, you just don’t have the luxury of being free to choose what you want to do politically. Although he thought the civil rights movement had achieved some important things, he thought the most critical piece was to achieve a measure of economic equality, and that still hasn’t been achieved. …

He recognized the faults of capitalism, but he thought, as long as that was the prevailing system, that Black people needed to acquire a piece of the capital. That’s still what a lot of people are talking about now: How do you shrink that wealth gap between African Americans and whites? Soul City was one attempt to try to do that, and I think looking at the forces that were arrayed against it and understanding why Soul City did not succeed can help us chart a path forward today.

 

What defeated Soul City?

First, and most obviously, there was a lot of overt racism that Soul City faced from people like Jesse Helms and from people in the local community and throughout the state. There’s no question that a lot of people opposed Soul City simply due to racism and hostility to efforts to improve the lives of Black people. Jesse Helms was probably the biggest cause. … If you think about the power that a senator has from a state, and when you’ve got federal money coming into a state, and then this senator from that state is saying, “No, we don’t want this money,” and is calling the project a boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money, it’s going to be really difficult for the federal government to continue supporting that project.

Also, there were a lot of white liberals who simply thought that Soul City was the wrong path to racial equality and who thought that this was a step away from integration. Claude Sitton, the editor of The News & Observer (from 1968 to 1990), is the most prominent example of someone who thought along these lines. I don’t think Claude Sitton was racist. But I do think that he was unwilling to defer to the judgment of someone like McKissick about what was best for Black people. I think that’s a real shame and a real missed opportunity, because The News & Observer at the time was, politically at least, the most powerful newspaper in the state, and had the newspaper supported the efforts to build Soul City, I think the outcome might have been very different.

I mean, overt racism is sort of the easy factor to point to. But what makes the story more complicated is the systemic or built-in racism, the unwillingness to defer to the judgment of African Americans about what they need … and if you think that those are the two main reasons why Soul City failed, then they help point to the reasons why we still face the economic gap between whites and Blacks, because there’s still a lot of overt racism—I mean, we’ve seen that very clearly in recent years—and there’s still a reluctance even among many white liberals to really listen to what Black people are saying about what they need and what their communities need. What can be done? Well, much greater investment in Black-owned businesses and Black communities and background institutions.

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Designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the project never got fully off the ground, and a new book by Charlotte native Thomas Healy explores why. Courtesy Henry Holt and Company/ Metropolitan Books.

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Investment by whom?

Well, by anybody who has money: by the (federal) government, by state and local governments, by corporations. As McKissick realized, in order to make money, you have to have money, right? You have to have some investment. Very few people have ever created money from nothing. One of the paradoxes that McKissick faced, or I guess the Catch-22 he faced, is that he wanted to achieve economic self-sufficiency for African Americans. But to do that, he had to first rely on the munificence of the federal government, because you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You’ve got to have some help.

 

There’s the rub, isn’t it?

Yeah, that is absolutely the rub: that if you want to achieve economic independence, you have to first depend, for financing, on the very entities you’re trying to become independent from. That’s still the dilemma, right? There’s probably more money in the Black community now than there was in 1969. But there’s still going to have to be investment from predominantly white-owned and white-controlled institutions, from the government at all levels and from American business. And there’s lots of other things—there are so many policy issues that are intertwined here. The criminal justice system obviously plays a huge role in hindering economic equality, because when you imprison young Black males for, you know, possession of marijuana and send them to jail for a long time, you’re going to make it very hard for them to ever succeed economically. …

But I think the fundamental principle is that there has to be investment in the success of Black businesses, Black communities, and Black institutions, and there has to be a willingness to listen to what African Americans are saying they need and give them autonomy and control over how those institutions and those businesses in those communities are run. It may sound trite, but white people have to let Black people lead the way.

 

In the prologue, you write, “If a project is designed primarily to help Blacks, it is automatically held to a higher standard of justification.” Is there a case here that American capitalism is inherently or unavoidably racist?

Well, racism and capitalism have a long history together, and I do think that they have been inextricably linked in the past. There are a lot of people who argue that it’s inevitable, that capitalism will always have a racist component to it. Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to Be an Antiracist, makes that argument. Not being an economist, I don’t know whether it is unavoidably the case that capitalism will always be rigged against African Americans. I think it certainly leans in that direction. Is there a way to salvage capitalism so that it’s not racist? I know there are people like Elizabeth Warren, who thinks that it is possible to reform capitalism so that the system is not always rigged against the powerless. I would like to believe that, but I don’t know for sure.

 

You being a Charlotte native, I’m sure you know that in the past few years, the city’s biggest civic issue has been an affordable housing crisis caused by skyrocketing land values along with a continuing struggle to secure opportunities for the poor, who are largely racial minorities. What are some of the lessons that a city like Charlotte can take from this particular history?

I think one of the core problems is residential segregation, when you have communities that are segregated both racially and economically. It means you don’t get that kind of cross-racial or cross-socioeconomic understanding that’s really important for a healthy, pluralistic democracy. A lot of resources just continue to flow into the communities that already have resources.

Single-family-only zoning.

Exactly. And you see this in public schools. Upper-income families get more resources—if from no other source—from the school PTA. So those communities continue to thrive, and the economically disadvantaged communities, which are often predominantly made up of racial minorities, continue to fall behind. What Soul City was trying to achieve was a real mix of housing within each of its villages. Every community was going to have a mix of single-family homes and townhouses and either low-rise or mid-rise apartment buildings that would be more affordable. The idea was that if you do this in a smart way and make everything attractive, and if you actually invest the money in low-income housing and maintain it, then you can have an attractive place where people of all income levels will want to live, and then everyone will be able to share in the resources that come into that community.

You mentioned single-family-only zoning—I mean, that’s a huge hindrance to economic equality because it means you’re going to have wealthy communities that get lots of resources that are largely beyond the reach of many racial minorities. If you’re familiar with Richard Rothstein, his book The Color of Law, none of these communities developed the way they did by accident. They were all the result of specific government policies, and that’s why we have the kinds of segregated residential communities we have today. And then, once people are in, you know, their “bubbles,” they become very protective of them, often for reasons that have to do with race but often for reasons that are solely about economic self-interest, and that can sometimes be understandable. I mean, no one wants their home value to decrease. But because we have a system that incentivizes wealthy communities to try to keep out poor people, it makes it very hard to ever undo what was done 75 years ago.

 

What was your biggest surprise during your research?

To read the stories about Soul City and the way it was portrayed in the media, one would have thought that this was not a serious business venture, that this was just, you know, a handful of people with a far-fetched idea who never got very far. But this was a serious business venture. When I went to UNC, where all the Soul City records are, there are 8,000 Redweld folders of Soul City documents. When you start digging through those documents, you realize how seriously McKissick and his staff took their jobs and how many of them were well-qualified for the jobs they were doing—early on in the project, he was largely relying on family and friends who didn’t have enough experience, but once he got the federal money (a $14 million Housing and Urban Development loan guarantee in 1972), he had serious people working there.

Actually, this might be the most surprising: how many people McKissick was able to persuade of the wisdom of his dream and how many people you might have thought would be opposed to Soul City who ultimately came on board. When he first announced his plans in Warren County, the immediate reaction was a lot of skepticism and fear and opposition from local officials and businesspeople. But when McKissick showed these people what Soul City could do for Warren County, virtually all of them came on board and supported the project. He ultimately had support from the Warren County Board of Commissioners and from Granville and Vance counties, and from the towns of Oxford and Henderson and Warrenton.

What that tells me is that it is possible to persuade white leaders that it is in everyone’s interest to promote a project like Soul City. They saw that Soul City would improve the lives of everyone in Warren County, not just the lives of African Americans but the lives of whites as well. As sad as it might be to say, self-interest is a powerful motivator, and I think he was able to show that, “Look, we will all be better off if we bring money and resources here.” That was an argument that McKissick had made in his book, Three-Fifths of a Man: that in order for America to succeed, the economic gap between whites and Blacks had to be closed, and if it wasn’t, the future of America would be in jeopardy.

 

HARVEY GANTT

 As he launched his venture, McKissick hired as its chief planner a recent graduate of MIT’s School of Architecture, Harvey Gantt, who in 1983 became Charlotte’s first Black mayor. Seven years after that, he lost a U.S. Senate race to Helms, who defeated Gantt with tactics similar to those he used to undermine Soul City.

 

In the epilogue of the book, when you’re talking with Thomas Healy, it seems like on one hand you think Soul City was almost an impossible dream, but on the other that it could have worked with the right mix of imagination and funding.

Well, for me, as a 27-year-old, fresh-out-of-school planner and architect, I went to Soul City with the notion that it was a reach, but it was something I wanted to be a part of. If I could help plan a new town, and comply with the guidelines of the Department of Housing and Urban Development—I thought we had the right team, we had the right engineers—we could physically lay out a town. Now, whether or not that town would ultimately reach its goal of becoming a city of—I believe at that time, we’re talking 50,000 people, a certain number of jobs created—if it could sustain itself, we thought that would be a terrific example to the rest of the country.

Floyd ran into, as Healy points out, substantial difficulty with the political leaders at that time. So he always had that to overcome before he even got to building the infrastructure. And then the long-term financing—those new towns, and there were very few of them really that survived fully. I think, under that program—those that succeeded under the New Communities Act (the HUD program through which McKissick secured the loan guarantee) got a substantial amount of private funding. They weren’t new communities in the sense that Floyd was building them. He was building a town in the middle of nowhere. Most of the other new communities were built as suburban elements of a larger city or metro area. Floyd was trying to grow a town out of nothing.

The theory made sense: If we can attract an industrial company or two or three, and hire people who were once farmers, and train them in the technical schools of North Carolina, and we could give them jobs, and raise the economic level of Warren County and other places—for us, that seemed not to be an unusual thing that could happen. But in the back of everybody’s mind, we were saying that everything had to fall into place. And it didn’t.

 

How is Soul City relevant today? Or is it?

I don’t know whether it remains relevant or not. It’s a factor when you view, historically, our challenges and opportunities in the past, when we sought to become more relevant economically. Floyd McKissick had this wonderful idea that fit into the New Communities Act: to go into rural North Carolina and build a town based on Black entrepreneurship and ownership, not exclusive to Black people but led by Black people. It was yet another attempt to move us from the bottom of the economic rung and move us up. And it attracted a lot of young people like myself, coming out of graduate school, to see whether we could plan something.

Now, today, we’re still trying to do that. But we’re probably not going to try to do it in a setting that, you might say, is exclusively Black. We were forced to do that at one time, way back when you think about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, and Rosewood (Florida) and other places—Durham, for that matter, in North Carolina—where segregation allowed us the opportunity to build some economic might in our communities. Floyd’s idea was, “Let’s start this thing from scratch.” And the base would be African Americans, and we would build the plants and we would man the industry, and we would build the housing, and so forth and so on. We would not shoo away white Americans and other Americans, but we wanted it to be clear to everybody that it was African Americans who built the town—hence the name “Soul City.”

(Opportunity for Black businesses) wasn’t available in the larger business world. And, of course, gradually that started to go away. And all the problems of continuing to build black businesses to scale—that is, to match the larger environment out there, beyond simply the Black community. The funding was not there to allow that to occur. … What we saw was the demise, to some extent, of a lot of Black businesses that could not expand their services to accommodate that. …

If you asked today whether that kind of a venture could go forward, I don’t think so. I’m not sure that African Americans would even want to live in a town (like Soul City). What they want to do is move up the economic ladder within the structures of the larger economic pie that’s available to the country. Yeah, I want to do well as an architectural firm. I want to build buildings. But I don’t want to build buildings just for African Americans or just for African American institutions. I want to build schools, colleges, businesses, office buildings, and I want to be good enough to compete in that overall environment. … We want to be good enough to compete. We want to be proud of our African American heritage, but we want to produce a product that is available easily to the larger America and to the world.

 

Greg Lacour is senior editor of this magazine.

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