North Carolina Soul City’s failed bid to build a black-run suburbia for America

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North Carolina Soul City's failed bid to build a black-run suburbia for America
Soul City as it looks today, an unfinished memorial to McKissick’s grand urban ambitions / © James Cheadle
North Carolina Soul City's failed bid to build a black-run suburbia for America
Soul City as it looks today, an unfinished memorial to McKissick’s grand urban ambitions / © James Cheadle

Civil rights activist Floyd McKissick dreamed of a southern utopia where the racially integrated community would be planned and managed by African Americans. Although the city was never completed, some traces remain

At first glance, this North Carolina town would have looked much like the thousands of others that were built across America’s vast countryside in the decades following the second world war. It would have consisted of single family homes on curvilinear streets within walking distance of manmade lakes, shopping centres and industry. In short, a 1970s vision of suburbia.

One key factor would have made this town different, however. The self-contained, racially integrated community would be planned, developed and managed by black people. Those black foundations would be celebrated in the town’s name: Soul City.

The idea was dreamed up by Floyd McKissick: attorney, civil rights activist and force of nature. In January 1969, amid the waning days of US president Lyndon B Johnson’s administration, McKissick strolled into a Washington DC news conference with secretary of agriculture Orville Freeman and announced plans to build Soul City on 5,000 acres of rural land in impoverished Warren County, just over an hour’s drive from Raleigh, North Carolina.

That was the easy part. While Johnson supported the effort and pledged government help, McKissick’s real task began five days later when a new president was sworn in: the politically conservative Richard Nixon.

Having secured the US’s southern states, including North Carolina, in the 1968 presidential election using a decidedly anti-black campaign tactic called the “southern strategy”, the prospect of Nixon backing $14m-worth (£9.7m) of federal loan guarantees to support the construction of this new town – built and managed by black people and called, of all things, Soul City – looked remote. Yet that’s exactly what happened. […]

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