In the 1960s, Floyd McKissick laid out a plan for a utopian, black-managed town in the American South that he called Soul City. Here’s how it happened — and what became of it.
FOR DECADES, Warren County, North Carolina was a site of extraction. Acres upon acres of tobacco plants wrested nutrients from the soil; plantation owners wrung wealth from the labor of slaves.
While the plantations eventually shuttered and slavery came to an official close, the county — and others like it — continued to dwindle as many of its residents abandoned it for economic opportunity elsewhere, often in Northern, urban environments.
But where to some Warren County stood as an eternally crippled consequence of exploitation, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick saw in the county potential for prosperity — utopia, even — for all.
To realize his vision, McKissick would rely on strategic federal investment and inclusive, community-driven planning for a town he would call “Soul City.”
In Soul City, McKissick envisioned a wide boulevard that would lead visitors past an executive office complex, industrial park, and manmade lake into the development, which would include shopping centers, a county-wide high school, bike trails, and a space to grow food.
It was a simultaneously new and old idea. While novel in the sense that this would be a town built from the ground up by African-Americans, McKissick conceded that “[African-Americans] have been running cities for years.” Indeed, he added, “on the plantations the work was done by blacks — the black engineers, black cooks, the black blacksmith, the black carpenter, and the black roofer — they all controlled the destiny of the white man.”
McKissick thought Soul City would be home to 50,000 people — blacks and whites — and generate 24,000 jobs within the first 30 years of its existence. He also believed that its presence in the rural American South would palliate the 1960s’ urban crisis, which he thought came at least in part because areas like Warren County did not offer African-Americans a path toward economic growth and personal fulfillment.
“The black man has been searching for identity and destiny in the cities,” McKissick said in a 1969 news conference announcing his plans. “He should be able to find it in the plains of Warren County.”
The Birth Of “Soul City”
The 1950s and ‘60s comprised a period of extreme flux for African-Americans in both rural and urban areas. Frustrated with economically depressed regions that by and large held tight to segregationist mores regardless of changes in segregation’s legality, many African-Americans in the rural South would head to cities, where they would often face further discrimination in the form of police brutality and housing inequality.
Urban crime and pollution reached alarming heights, and whites began to abandon city centers in a movement known as “white flight.” Many African-Americans did not have the means to do the same, and thus were effectively shackled to rapidly declining urban centers as their white-held wealth bled out.
In an attempt to manage the unfurling crisis, in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson launched the Model Cities Program, a component of his War on Poverty. Rightly or wrongly, Model Cities saw the urban crisis as a technical problem that could be solved with equally technical solutions, such as an influx of federal dollars into urban infrastructure improvements.
McKissick, too, would come to find these sorts of solutions appealing. While he would march with Martin Luther King Jr. and serve as President of the Congress on Racial Equality, over the years McKissick grew frustrated with the Civil Rights Movement, believing it didn’t go far enough. McKissick would endorse black power, a decision which he would rethink following King’s assassination in 1968.
At that point, as City Lab writes, McKissick “[shifted] strategy again, relying on capitalism to counter entrenched racism that fueled urban neglect and the destitute conditions of black neighborhoods.”
And Warren County was certainly destitute. In 1969, per capita income in Warren County was $1,638, and over a third of its residents lived “below low income level.” Median family incomes for black families were less than the national per capita income. Dropout rates hovered at 44.7 percent, and its younger population had started taking off for cities elsewhere.
President Johnson supported McKissick’s vision, and in January 1969 McKissick announced that his utopian, black-built community — one of 14 Model Cities projects, and the only Model City project built from the ground up — would become a reality on 5,000 acres of Warren County land.