Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Soul City, North Carolina: Black Power, Utopia, and the African American Dream

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Soul City, North Carolina: Black Power, Utopia, and the African American Dream

Article excerpt

      Imagine,
      A city without prejudice.
      A city without poverty.
      A city without slums.
      A city tailor-made for industry.
      A city with a booming economy.
      A brand new shining city.
      With open spaces. Trees and grass. Rolling hills. Soft winds.
      Fresh air. Clear skies. Where stars and moon are visible. Clean
      water. Lakes. Creeks. Ponds. Springtime weather. Hardly any snow.
      Yet distant mountains. Ample schools, hospitals, parking,
      recreation. Well built, stylish housing. A master plan. But not
      sterile and cold. For a city conceived with just an eye for bricks
      and mortar is a city without a soul. Call the bold alternative
      SOUL CITY.
      --Excerpt from an undated promotional brochure, Soul City: The
      Bold Alternative, published by The Soul City Company

On 13 January 1969, in the office of the Secretary of Agriculture in Washington, DC, Floyd McKissick announced his intention to build a city in Warren County, North Carolina. Soul City was to be a multiracial, multicultural development for underprivileged and disadvantaged persons which newspapermen quickly referred to as a "black-built" town. As McKissick, former national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) explained, "White men have built other cities. We want this city to reflect the many cultures, the many nations that exist in American society.... Soul City will be an attempt to move into the future, a future where black people welcome white people as equals." (1) Area newspapers told the tale, reflecting the rise and fall of McKissick's idea. Early headlines during the period 1969-1973 used words such as "hopeful," "dream," and "praiseworthy" to describe the project, but headlines after 1975 used adjectives, such as "tangled" and "insurmountable," to convey the town's problems. The headiness of Soul City's early years gave way to critics, circling like buzzards in the air of optimism that enveloped the experimental town. When Soul City's pioneers stumbled and fell, political heavies, such as North Carolina Representative L. H. Fountain and Senator Jesse Helms, were ready to swoop in and pick them apart, claiming that the project was doomed from the start. McKissick was a man of relentless vision, but forces would conspire to prevent that vision from becoming the harmonious community he imagined.

He sought to create a model community. McKissick's version of the American dream incorporated a communitarian vision, far different from the traditional American pursuit of individual success and material gain. "Soul City is going to be .... a city, [a] place of truth which ought to have a high tower with a beacon of light to let the world know it's there and a place where man can develop himself to what he wants to be." (2) This echo of John Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" was set not in 17th century Massachusetts, but in the piedmont region of 20th century North Carolina. It was utopian in the sense that it was visionary: as the city took shape, rising from the Carolina mud, it carried with it all of the tensions and fears of the nation's torrid racial past--even as it set the stage for a brighter future. Born out of the tumult and hope of the 1960s, Soul City prefigured the "New Urbanist" trend of the 1980s and 1990s; furthermore, it represented the first sustainable black community built from the ground up in the 20th century with assistance from the federal government. It was unique among 20th century alternative communities with regard to its idealistic initiative, its detailed planning, its massive funding, and its ultimate failure. The scope of Soul City as a 1970s-era utopia is without parallel, and the story of how McKissick's dream city materialized--and failed to materialize--represents a dramatic combination of Black Power and utopian, design, set against the backdrop of African Americans' quest for their version of the American dream. …

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