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In rural North Carolina, Soul City was an 'American Utopia' unrealized

In rural North Carolina, Soul City was an 'American Utopia' unrealized

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Floyd McKissick

In this file photo, former civil rights lawyer-activist Floyd McKissick, right, talks to grade foreman A.T. Ayscue in the empty fields where the future “Soul City” was to be built in Warren County on June 20, 1974. McKissick, the founder and prime sponsor of the Soul City project, wanted to create a new city for minorities, but open to all.

About an hour north of Raleigh, a handful of residential streets still hint that something bold happened on this patch of rural Warren County.

Liberation Road. Freedom Circle. Cul-de-sacs named for abolitionists and Black trailblazers. All sit just around the corner from Soul City Boulevard, designed decades ago by one of the country's most prominent civil rights leaders to be a gateway into his vision for racial equality in America.

In "Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia," author Thomas Healy explores the largely forgotten story of Floyd McKissick's dream to build a shining example of Black economic power just south of the Virginia border.

By the early 1970s, McKissick's vision had garnered support from both the state and federal government. But under pressure from voices on the right and left — and following critical reports from media organizations such as The News & Observer — the venture ultimately fell apart.

The News & Observer sat down with Healy, a law professor at Seton Hall University and former reporter with the newspaper, to talk about the promise of Soul City and the powerful forces that ultimately doomed the project.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Q: In the early days of the project, what did Soul City mean to the people who lived there?

Healy: Primarily, it meant opportunity. It meant a chance to to build decent lives for them and their families, and the opportunity to be a part of something transformative.

Many of them viewed themselves as settlers, and they compared this to to being a part of the frontier. I think they saw themselves as being a part of history and doing something that no one had ever done.

A lot of people viewed it that way. (Republican North Carolina Gov.) Jim Holshouser viewed it that way. He compared McKissick to the astronauts who stepped on the moon or to the people who settled the frontier.

The whole project had that kind of frontier sensibility about it.

Q: How did Soul City fit into broader conversations in the civil rights movement about integration and Black economic power?

Healy: In the early part of the civil rights movement, the goals were framed very clearly and very simply. It was about breaking down racial barriers and about dismantling Jim Crow.

As the movement wore on, lots of civil rights leaders began to focus on economic issues, and McKissick was a real leader in this regard.

McKissick thought that the kind of power (Black people) needed was economic power. Without economic power, you could never guarantee your political equality because you would be at the mercy of the people who had the real power in society, which, in McKissick's view, were the people with money and with capital.

It's not as though McKissick turned away from integration. It's simply that he came to believe that integration wasn't enough, and that the real goal had to be economic equality.

He came to believe that one of the ways to accomplish that was to create a city, an entire world, in which Black people would call the shots, in which a people who had once been enslaved to enrich others could now control their own economic destiny.

McKissick I don't think viewed those two goals as mutually exclusive. He just cared more about about economic equality.

His primary concern was, how do we how do we give African Americans a stake in the capitalist system?

Q: What role did the misconceptions about this being an "all-Black city" play in its development?

Healy: When McKissick made his initial announcement, lots of media outlets described it as an all-Black city, in spite of the fact that he made clear that it wouldn't be all Black. And that perception persisted for a long time.

For lots of white liberals at the time, this was very concerning, because they thought that Soul City was a step backwards, that this was a move away from integration. You take someone like Claude Sitton, who was the editor of The News & Observer, a legendary civil rights reporter for The New York Times and a believer in integration. When he thought about Soul City, he thought that this was a separatist community, all Black, and that was moving backwards.

I think what that shows is that many people had a pre-fixed idea about what integration meant demographically. (McKissick) said everybody conceives of integration as 80% white and 20% Black, and nobody can imagine it where it's 80% Black and 20% white. In McKissick's view, there was no reason why that couldn't be as equally well described as "integration."

Soul City was caught between two opposing forces. There were the Jesse Helmses of the world, who were opposed to it because of their own racist beliefs. But there were the Claude Sittons of the world who were opposed to it because this conflicted with their idea about how integration should look. So if you've got opposition from conservatives who are racist like Jesse Helms, and you have opposition from white liberals like Claude Sitton, there's not a whole lot left in the middle.

Q: What role did The News & Observer play in the demise of Soul City?

Healy: Other than Jesse Helms, I think the N&O probably played the biggest role in the demise of Soul City.

Back then, most people who were interested in government and politics in North Carolina were getting their news and taking their cues from The News and Observer. So when the N&O publishes that series of articles, claiming all sorts of misconduct and nepotism and conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement and lack of progress, that essentially tells everybody else how to think about Soul City.

That sets the tone. And it gives Jesse Helms the opportunity he had been waiting for since he was elected to the Senate to request this federal audit.

That audit, which flowed directly from the News & Observer series, cast a dark shadow over Soul City for most of the year, and very few companies wanted to be involved once it was under investigation. Even though the audit largely cleared Soul City of the charges, it was really hard to recover from that cloud that was hanging over it.

Q: What lessons can we learn from the fall of Soul City?

Healy: I don't know how much you can do about the Jesse Helmses of the world. Trying to change the minds of people like Jesse Helms is probably not very easy.

What I think is such a missed opportunity here is the position that Claude Sitton and The News & Observer took on Soul City.

Think about this. This was one of the poorest counties in the state. And you had someone who was bringing money into this area, to grow it economically, and to provide opportunity for the people who live there.

And the federal government was saying, "Yeah, we're on board. We'll give you money to build a thriving city in one of the poorest areas of the state." You've got the first Republican governor in the 20th century in North Carolina, Jim Holshouser, who's on board. He shows up at the groundbreaking and says this is one of the greatest days in North Carolina history.

If The News & Observer — if Claude Sitton — could have broken free of those fixed ideas he had about how integration should look, and put the support of The News & Observer behind this, Soul City might have succeeded.

So the lesson, I think, is that people like Claude Sitton who are sympathetic to the struggle for racial equality have to accept that Black people need to have some control and autonomy in determining what that equality is going to look like, and how to get there. And there needs to be a level of self determination that currently doesn't exist.

People in power — white people, in particular, in power — need to listen more carefully to what Black people are saying about what they need to achieve equality. And if what they're saying doesn't automatically fit in with our preconceived notions, white people shouldn't reject it out of hand.

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