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Soul City

 SOUL CITY

written by Carolyn M .Brown

Black Power, because of its association with various ideologies including black nationalism and black separatism, has gotten lost in translation. One could argue much like the knee jerk reaction to Black Lives Matters (and the silent Too) is All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, dismissing the origin of this rally cry and disregarding grassroots organizers campaigns against police brutality and systematic racism. 

Black Power is a slogan and philosophy of African Americans achieving self-determination—a community of people creating its own development. At its very core Black Power was about putting power in black people’s hands. At least that’s how Floyd B. McKissick saw it when he dreamed of creating a thriving utopian city for African Americans families and black-owned businesses in the heart of rural North Carolina. And his dream for this Soul City nearly came to fruition in the 1970s with the aid of an unlikely ally—President Richard Milhous Nixon and a Republican Administration that financially backed the town’s initial construction. 

McKissick’s desire to give power to his fellow black Americans was a continuous part of his life and work. Born in the hill country around Asheville, North Carolina, in 1922, he was active in the NAACP from the age of 12 – but, as his New York Times obituary explained many decades later, “his devotion to the cause of equal rights” came a year later. At just 13, he was a Boy Scout volunteering to direct traffic in Asheville, when a white police officer pushed him to the ground. 

After completing high school, McKissick went to Atlanta’s famed historically black men’s college, Morehouse, then served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After returning from the battlefields of Europe, he finished his education at Morehouse, graduating in 1948, then finishing law school—after successfully suing to gain entry as a member of the first cohort of black students ever—at the University of North Carolina. That McKissick’s attorney in the case was Thurgood Marshall, the man who would become America’s first black United States Supreme Court Justice and an icon of future civil rights victories, seems fitting. From his early years on, Floyd B. McKissick’s life intersected with other prominent civil rights leaders. He walked with MLK in protest marches, staged sit-ins, and won cases as a civil rights lawyer as he moved from pacifist movements toward more-radical approaches to achieving black liberation and true Black Power. 

So to begin with, was it so radical to believe that an African American community could self-determine their own economic fortunes and political fates? That there could exist a town that would provide a safe haven for African Americans to live, work, play and thrive alongside people of all races? And and with the help of the Republican controlled federal government to boot? McKissick propagated Soul City would be free of bigotry, a place of racial harmony. An idea that unfortunately still sounds pretty radical today. 

Instead of following his fellow Utopians to the wooded lands of the north, in the late ‘60’s, McKissick began to form the ideas for Soul City - what would be a black utopia in Warren County, a poor and predominately black area of North Carolina about an hour drive outside of Raleigh and Durham. In addition to houses, schools, churches, and retail stores, Soul City plans included a manmade lake, a state-of-the art water system, a HealthCo Medical & Dental facility, and a Soul Tech Industrial center that was to house factories and incubate small businesses.

But, the promise of Soul City is a tale as old as time about racism, party politics and urban development. It offers lessons on various fronts, including a failed attempt at using targeted federal funding deployed to address problems that are social and racial in nature— another lesson in trying to navigate a divisive political landmine centering on race relations. Soul City’s development was beset with problems that still plague America some 50 years since McKissick first established its framework. 

Today, Soul City stands as a community that is part of the city of Manson, N.C.  and a 20-ft tall rectangular column with “Soul City” inscribed in a stylish font stands at what was once the main entrance, along with a church, a fire station, and a recreational center. Many of the people who moved to Soul City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s still live in homes that were built on the land. HealthCo however eventually shut down and what was once the Soul Tech I now makes up a section of Warren County’s jail complex. 

“Soul City represented hope and change,” Floyd B. McKissick Jr. says of his father’s vision. “Instead of relocating up North, African Americans would find affordable housing and gainful employment here in the South, in Soul City.” He also wanted African Americans facing racial oppression in urban ghettos up North to move back South to live in his dream city.

McKissick Jr., who is a North Carolina State Senator, says his father was pushing for black economic development and ownership of capital. For the senior McKissick, black capitalism and ownership was an expansion of his civil rights activism. In 1966, McKissick became the National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and under his leadership, CORE began to promote the concept of Black Power. 

To understand the significance of this shift somewhat requires a flashcard history lesson. The Civil Rights Movement can be broken down into the Big 5 groups: CORE, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), National Urban League (NUL), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

CORE, founded in 1942, was an interracial organization committed to achieving integration and ending discriminatory policies through direct action and civil disobedience. Established in 1957, SCLC which is closely associated with its first president, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., promoted nonviolent resistance by staging sit-ins, boycotts, and protest marches. SNCC, formed by young African American college students in 1960, focused on mobilizing local communities in nonviolent protests and to demand for federal action against racial injustice. The NUL, founded in 1910 to eliminate discrimination, emphasized jobs and employment and fair housing for African-Americans. The NAACP, formed in 1909 as an interracial endeavor to advance equal justice, took the fight for civil rights to the courts, concentrating on litigation to overturn school and residential segregation and the disenfranchisement of African Americans.

The broader Civil Rights movement fragmented in the wake of the assassination of MLK on April 4, 1968, with riots erupting in major cities across the nation. By the late '60s, both CORE and SNCC had become disillusioned with the slow rate of progress associated with nonviolence and turned to the growing revolutionary Black Power movement, most exemplified by Huey Newton, the Black Panthers, and their armed struggle against police brutality. But the black power movement overall emphasized black pride, political power and economic clout no matter how great the expanse was between methodologies. It was the revolutionary idea of black people acquiring real political power (i.e. by holding political office). McKissick pushed for increased African-American control over communities, governments, finances, and schools.

In 1968, McKissick resigned from his position with CORE intent on breaking ground on his utopian city. He left the established trappings of his upper middle class lifestyle, moving out of Harlem and into a mobile home in Soul City. He established Floyd B. McKissick Enterprises and The Soul City Company. Other activists, like Jane Ball Groom, also relocated from New York City to Soul City with her five children and husband, becoming an administrative assistant for McKissick. “We wanted to be part of building something new,” she shares in Isaac Hughes Green’s film short Soul City, “we wanted to be transformed.” Gordan Carey, CORE’s field director in 1960 who had organized Freedom Rides and led sit-ins in North Carolina, left CORE to work on Soul City’s development. Carey, who is white, became VP of McKissick Enterprises. 

In those early years, many Soul City residents displayed Black Pride by sporting Afros with hair picks in them, raising up their fists, and wearing clothes that bore the Black Liberation Flag colors—red, black and green, recalls Dr. Charmaine McKissick-Melton, daughter of Floyd B. McKissick. Some residents were college students who were Quakers. Others were part of counterculture youth movements—hippies, flower children—who favored communal living.

McKissick projected by the year 2004, Soul City would have 50,000 citizens and produce 24,000 jobs. He envisioned major corporations building local operations. But by 1979, a decade into its development, a combination of political pressure and negative press undermined the project and McKissick’s multiethnic utopia became a dream deferred.

The original underpinning for Soul City came in the waning days of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration and so McKissick needed to find common ground with the incoming president, Richard Milhous Nixon, in 1969. It was a winning strategy; McKissick won federal funds under the Urban Growth and New Community Development Act (renamed the National Urban Policy and New Community Development Act of 1970). It was Nixon’s update of Johnson’s Model Cities program, providing federal support, and a total of $500,000,000 in bond guarantees for the development of new towns by private developers through HUD. 

Some 14 new communities (including New York’s own Roosevelt Island) were established under the new law in such states as New York, Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and Maryland. North Carolina’s Soul City was the only freestanding town to be built from scratch. Soul City would have input from African-American architects, contractors, planners, and managers. What McKissick understood, though, was that sometimes in order to achieve power, one must work strategically with those already in said positions of power, specifically political ones. 

A Republican president who was not typically known for championing economic equality, Nixon initiated the age of “black capitalism,” which was building wealth through the ownership and development of businesses. Nixon sought to expand economic opportunities for African Americans though job assistance and entrepreneurship. This included signing an Executive Order in 1969 that established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (renamed the Minority Business Development Agency) within the Department of Commerce, government-sponsored minority small business investment companies, and 8(a) minority set-asides program among others. Nixon asked large companies and banks to help alleviate poverty in urban cities by increasing minority franchise opportunities, investing in minority businesses, and lending to minority businesses. The Nixon Administration touted total revenues for black-owned businesses jumped from $4.5 billion in 1968 to $7.26 billion in 1972 when Soul City received a $14 million guarantee from HUD.

Critics argue that Nixon’s promotion of the concept of black capitalism really was his attempt to subvert the Black Power movement and radical African Americans, such as the Black Panther Party. Ironically, Nixon’s support of Soul City fed into that part of the Black Power platform which he enthusiastically embraced—voluntary segregation, self-reliance, and private enterprise, according to Mehrsa Baradaran, author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.

Whatever Nixon’s true intent around fostering black capitalism, McKissick leveraged his tactical relationship with the Republican president to help ensure that Soul City would receive HUD funding. Subsequently, McKissick became the minority campaign chairman for Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign; a move that didn’t come without controversy. McKissick was accused of being a sell out by black leaders like Julian Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time (later becoming chair of the NAACP).

McKissick argued that Nixon needed to stay in the Oval Office for another four years so that he could fulfill his promise to do more for African Americans. Nixon won his reelection and that same year Soul City secured federal dollars. But presidential tenures can be unpredictable.

In 1974, the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign and Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief. However, the new GOP president did not embrace the “black capitalism” and economic development concept in the same way as his predecessor. While it was not the saving grace of black communities eradicating poverty and ending racial disparity in the nation’s inner cities, Nixon’s bent towards black capitalism resulted in two-thirds of the 100 largest black enterprises having been started during his administration. 

Nixon’s departure left Soul City ripe for the picking by its racist opponents, including Republican Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative, segregationist elected to Congress in 1972, who saw Soul City as a misappropriation of federal funds. McKissick reportedly sent a letter to Helms congratulating him on winning his US Senate seat and received a letter back from Senator Helms informing him that one of his first acts in Congress was going to be trying to close down Soul City. (Echos of Senator Mitch McConnell’s “one term president” remarks come to mind.) 

 In 1975, the Raleigh News & Observer wrote several articles criticizing McKissick’s motives and accused him of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of government funds. Soul City came under attack by two North Carolinians in Congress, Republican Senator Jesse Helms and like-minded Democrat Representative L.H. Fountain, who successfully pushed for an audit of Soul City, which Helms framed as “an insult to the hard-pressed taxpayers of North Carolina and the nation.” Racism in America clearly prefers no political party.

“The initial funds Soul City received weren’t sufficient so McKissick tried to get new loan guarantees from HUD to continue construction,” says Isaac Hughes Green, whose grandfather lived in Soul City and worked as a doctor with the pro-rated medical center HealthCo. But Soul City was now perceived as an operation that was asking for a lot of money but had little to show for it. He notes, “Helms took advantage of this, bringing before the Senate floor that McKissick hadn’t built what he said he was going to build.” 

Under federal scrutiny, the Soul City community development project was brought to a near standstill. After a yearlong audit, the US Government Accountability Office found no wrongdoing, but by then the damage was done. No business—black-owned or otherwise—was willing to invest in a community under federal investigation, according to the North Carolina History Project. 

The delay weakened the project’s viability and big corporate partners providing thousands of jobs never materialized. At its height, Soul City was home to less than 200 people, falling far short of its goal of 2000 residents by 1978. Land for Soul City was first purchased in December of 1969 and “after 10 years of progress building a community, Senator Jesse Helms cut the project off at its knees,” decries McKissick-Melton in Soul City, the documentary series curated by Reel South.

Amid several criticisms that Soul City wasn’t progressing, HUD finally pulled its support and McKissick’s multicultural utopia was declared economically unviable in 1979. HUD took over Soul City’s ownership the following year and auctioned the town for $1.5 million. McKissick sued HUD, latter settling and keeping ownership of a few properties and remained in Soul City. In 1990, he was appointed a state district court judge by North Carolina Governor James G. Martin. Less than a year later, while working as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Soul City, McKissick died of lung cancer at the age 69. He was buried in the town he helped build and will always be credited as the first African American to officially develop a new city with federal funding..

Soul City’s shortcomings are part of a longstanding debate over black economic empowerment and black capitalism as the pathway to black clout. An ongoing rift between a community-based economic development versus a public-private sector model of bringing in big corporations to create jobs. The never ending battle to try to close the wealth gap between the races.

Whether it’s progressive or conservative policies, regardless if a Democrat or Republican occupies the Oval Office, the political mood of the country and bully pulpit rhetoric from Nixon to Trump is a driving factor in the advancement or regression of communities across the nation. Soul City’s failings also bore witness to this fact. 

Ideology, social class and race are still at the heart of divisive political turmoil. We are living in hyper partisan times where it is not about addressing policy issues, it is sustaining identity politics which is defined as a tendency of people sharing a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity to form exclusive political alliances. Political strategists point out that identity politics are problematic because they tend to lead to zero-sum game conceptions of politics, where if your side wins my side loses, which leaves little room for cooperation and compromise. 

Soul City’s downfall was due to fear, bigotry, racism, and resistance to change. Soul City the documentary sums it up best characterizing Soul City’s founders as: a group of dreamers who tried to bring together unlikely allies to support black power and economic development, but they were forced to balance their soaring idealism with the hostile reality of the times.

Watch Soul City the movie in full here!