Soul City – A Black Utopia

If we’ve learned nothing in the time of a black president, it is that America is more than ready to be one unhyphenated America. There was a time however when separation worked, like in the ‘50s when the black family was at its peak, and the black person at his most wholesome. Black neighborhoods were thriving, and ultimately would have led to present-day America not understanding a term like “black neighborhoods.”

In an effort to get back to that ideal, a ‘60’s era civil rights activist and director of the Congress for Racial Equality Floyd McKissick conceived a city built by black people and for black people. From McKissick came Soul City, North Carolina.

Architectural Digest is said to have described Soul City thusly:

Soul City was carved out of 5,000 acres on played-out tobacco fields of the Saterwhite Plantation, in Warren County, North Carolina. When I arrived in 1974, Soul City was full of great expectation, ten double-wide trailers and no discernible human population. A nearby little hamlet of Manson, off U.S. Route 158, contained a small filling station and grocery store, ramshackle, picturesque First Baptist Church and a retread tire repair shop. Most striking–now as then–are the beautiful red clay dirt which line the roadsides, a hazy blue sky only occasionally interrupted by short, monsoon-like rain deluges and a stillness and beatitude which suggests Southerners only lost the War of Northern Aggression to return the land back to its mostly fallow, uncultivated state.

This is far from McKissick’s vision of a black Utopia that would contain housing, businesses, and churches in a black cocoon of sorts, allowing black residents to live and work in the same neighborhood.  Black enclaves like Bay View-Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and Harlem in NYC existed in cities up to this point in America’s history, however those cities were run by whites, where blacks were treated more like guests of white city planners and developers. McKissick wanted a town where blacks would be the establishment.

Soul City was not the first attempt to build black Utopias. Previous attempts at establishing all-black communities—like Brooklyn, IL, established before the Civil War, and Promiseland, SC, founded during Reconstruction had all failed, always for the same two reasons:  Democrat intimidation and lack of money.  Soul City managed to solve the money problem.

In 1972 McKissick was able to secure funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and HUD in the form of a $14M bond to get the project underway. Soul City would later receive $1.7M from the state of North Carolina, and another $1M from private donors.

With these funds, McKissick built a state-of-the art water system, a health care clinic, and a massive industrial building called “Soul Tech 1,” a steel and glass manufacturing plant.  The city was diversifying with roughly a four to one ratio of blacks to whites by 1975, though the population remained small.

By 1980 there were only 35 housing units, a clinic, a tennis court and a pool, and the city had filed for bankruptcy. The former Soul Tech building was purchased by the Warren County Correctional Institution for expansion, and a number of new homes had been constructed to accommodate the population of 150. Soul City had few black businesses and was not on its way to being home to 18,000 people by 1989, as McKissick had hoped.

As writer Kate Hedges puts it:

To see Soul City in its naked, barren state, to drive its miles of paved roads which lead to nowhere, primarily used as places to dump old couches and appliances, to see its sole remaining edifice, a twenty foot high “Soul City North Carolina” sign, still carefully tended, is to see at first hand the pure love, blind trust, foolish pride which define the quintessential American mind and experience. Too often, we Americans are accused of acting exclusively out of malevolent intentions and ambitions. We see this played out daily in the streets of Baghdad, our corporate icons carelessly strewn across the world, in our disregard for other common global environmental concerns. But to see Soul City is to understand that, to an American, to want to do something is almost as important as its ill-conceived execution and final outcome. The American experiment’s still alive and well, whether it be transplanted to the gleaming canyons of Michael Bloomberg’s post-9-1-1 Manhattan, the ubiquity and gemütlich character of our neatly laid-out suburbs in any American metropolis, or to the backroads of this once-rural, now red-neck satellite-city development.

You might think that Soul City was Democrats’ attempt to assuage their guilt about slavery and their heinous history on civil rights for blacks. But that’s not the case. Soul City was authorized by Republican President Richard M. Nixon, the very same Nixon who was responsible for Affirmative Action.

Nevertheless, Republican-sponsored Soul City had failed. But why?

In 1975, when Tom Stith of the Raleigh News & Observer wrote a hard-hitting expose of alleged corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement in Soul City, racist Democrat-turned-Republican Senator Jesse Helms and racist Democrat-stayed-Democrat Congressman L.H. Fountain demanded an audit of the project.

Soul City was essentially at a standstill until the General Accounting Office (GAO) completed its investigation. Soul City was eventually cleared in December of the very same year the inquiry began.  The fate of Soul City had been sealed, however. Despite solving the money problem, McKissick could not solve the Democrat intimidation issue, though it wasn’t white Democrats wearing white sheets this time.  This time it was white Democrats in suits, who had seen to it that there would be no black Utopia or Republican success in helping black people establish economic power.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

© 2011 Kevin Jackson – The Black Sphere, LLC – All Rights Reserved.

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