Over the weekend I watched a riveting documentary about Soul City, North Carolina. I have to admit my ignorance about this fascinating piece of African-American history. In 1969, Floyd McKissick, an African-American attorney and dreamer, announced plans to build a new city on 5,000 acres of land in Warren County, North Carolina.
McKissick was a Morehouse College graduate and the first black student to graduate from the University of North Carolina’s law school. He proved to be a pioneer in more ways than one, envisioning this “first of its kind” government-funded black utopia. Soul City was to be FUBU (“For Us, By Us”).
What was McKissick’s vision for the city? Empowerment. “The black man has been searching for identity and destiny in the cities,” McKissick said in a 1969 news conference. “He should be able to find it in the plains of Warren County.” In a 1973 interview, he said he saw Soul City as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement.
McKissick envisioned a place where blacks would find economic empowerment, a distinct identity, and rediscover their “soul.” A product of the Black Power movement, he felt this new city was the only way for blacks to truly feel like they were part of the fabric of this nation with the ability to achieve the American dream.
Funding the Vision
McKissick recruited developers and planners to start the project. The federal government—through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—heavily funded the project. McKissick took advantage of the federal government’s generous funding for new cities on undeveloped plots of land that normally helped structurally support White Flight (i.e. Whites moving out of urban centers) to suburban America.
The tract of land purchased to build Soul City was an old tobacco plantation. On this same plot of land, slaves toiled day and night providing free labor for the plantation owner. The work to build the infrastructure for the city sought to change that narrative. Blacks would be empowered to work, live, and play in a city that was black owned and black run.
That was before HUD funds dried up (or, as some Soul City residents reported, the project got caught in a bureaucratic web that didn’t want it to succeed). A year later the government auctioned off the town for $1.4 million dollars.
The Proverbial Blues
Today, the unincorporated city has a population of 200. The McKissick family still lives there, though Floyd MccKissick passed away in 1991. The Warren County Correctional Facility is just a stone’s throw away, where black prisoners make soap for $2 a day—a reminder that systemic injustice continues to plague black communities. Soul City stands unfinished, singing the proverbial blues of a people who have spent centuries trying to overcome the oppressive system reminiscent of the tobacco plantation it sits on.
Floyd McKissick is buried in Soul City. After watching this documentary, I sure hope his dreams to empower and humanize the black community weren’t buried with him.