Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia
by Thomas Healy
Metropolitan Books, 2021, 448 pp.
Thomas Healy’s book is an earnest and empathetic examination of Soul City, former civil rights lawyer and national director of the Congress of Racial Equality Floyd McKissick’s 1970s idea for a black-designed, black-led town in Warren County, North Carolina, near the Virginia border. The book is a moving account of McKissick’s commitment to his vision and the many obstacles, reasonable and unreasonable, objective and arbitrary, that hindered its realization. As a story of McKissick the man and his nearly indefatigable zeal, Soul City is nuanced and subtle, and it provides poignant, if not always fully intentional, commentary on the limitations of the political moment out of which McKissick’s idea emerged. Healy seems to channel McKissick’s own enthusiasm in asking, “How could a project that once held such promise and potential fall so depressingly short of its goals?” His follow up questions suggest his answer: “Was Soul City an impossible and misbegotten dream from the beginning, or was it a brilliant idea that was thwarted by racism and ignorance? And how might history have been different if Soul City had succeeded?”
I confess that I was bemused on reading those questions, especially the last. As someone who had peripheral associations with the project and was around it from nearly the beginning to the end, I never once believed that Soul City could be anything more than a boondoggle, much less a game-changing intervention in black American politics.
I assisted in a shopping habits and patterns study that the Ford Foundation–funded community development agency I worked for in Durham conducted for Soul City in the early 1970s. Later, in the summer of 1974, I worked in Warrenton, the seat of Warren County, for six weeks on a research project monitoring local spending patterns of federal revenue sharing and other funds, which provided another perspective on Soul City. Occasionally, while visiting friends in Warrenton into the early 1980s, I would nose around and get updates on how little actual new development there had been at the Soul City site. Finally, during a car trip in late 2006 or early 2007, I pulled off I-85 on a lark to see what remained of the location. I was taken aback when I encountered a medium-security prison, which Healy describes in the book, and a factory under construction across the street, which was clearly being built to accommodate use of prison labor. That seemed like ignominious punctuation to the demise of McKissick’s vanity project, with its mixture of a class-skewed quixotic vision and blatant political opportunism.
From that perspective, the more interesting question is what led Healy to see the Soul City experiment as having offered such promise. Perhaps his respect for McKissick encouraged a reflexive embrace of McKissick’s assessment of the scheme’s potential. Healy’s premise also comports with a romantic trope of recovering lost or forgotten roads tragically not taken, which has become conventional in a moment when boundaries between lay and professional historiography, and between writing about the past and doing politics, have dissolved under the pressure of claims to social relevance. The autodidact’s indictment—“Why didn’t ‘we’ (or at least I) know this?”—has elevated expressions of aggrievement above pursuit of understanding in approaches to black political history. This interpretive environment encourages extracting events, people, and tendencies from their contexts in the past to treat them as appendages to moralistic claims for the present.
Healy contextualizes the Soul City experiment in some ways but not necessarily those that were most important. He situates McKissick’s idea in relation to an ideal variously characterized as black “self-determination,” “economic self-sufficiency,” “control over their own destiny,” or “economic parity.” In addition to discussing Soul City in relation to the broader New Communities movement in postwar metropolitan planning and development, he links McKissick’s ideal to the formation of all-black towns in the late nineteenth century and relates it to Booker T. Washington’s agenda of racial self-help and business development.
It is only a garnish in Healy’s overall narrative, but the assertion that we should see Soul City as continuous with a lineage that includes post-Emancipation black towns and settlements is a reach. Some of those settlements formed serendipitously, as Healy himself acknowledges; some were intentionally created and were products of conscious movements motivated by pragmatic concerns, such as the quest for rich farmland or escape from strictures of racial regulation. Freedpeople did not, nor do most other people of whatever racial classification, typically pursue abstractions like racial self-determination. Those are motives scholars or ideologues project onto others’ actions, which stem from messier and more ambiguous sources. Such characterizations are likely to reinforce the interpretive agendas of those who project them, and they are often intended to assert or reinforce a sense of collective singularity of purpose.
I mention this to draw attention to another interpretive problem that continues to plague how we think and write about black Americans’ political life. Formulations that stress continuity of purported racial traditions—and this includes constructs like a transhistorical, transcontextual “black liberation struggle,” “black freedom movement,” or “long civil rights movement”—are alternatives to explanations of phenomena in their own time and contexts.
Soul City does invite comparison, however, with one nineteenth-century black town: Mound Bayou, Mississippi, which Healy mentions (though he mistakenly locates it in Louisiana). Mound Bayou, like Soul City, was conceived as an individual’s dream to demonstrate black self-sufficiency and racial advancement, and it could provide a cautionary tale. It was founded by Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin in 1887. Montgomery’s city-building vision, like McKissick’s, depended on support from financial and philanthropic interests as well as state and local governments. That decreed a political strategy of courting the good will of ruling-class political interests, not Populists, workers, or farmers who could do nothing to advance the vision. To wit, Montgomery dismissed black political participation as a distraction, although he was engaged actively in the state’s Republican factional politics. Moreover, he was the only black delegate to the 1890 state constitutional convention that disfranchised the black population and installed white supremacy as the foundation of the state’s government. A member of a committee on the franchise, appointments, and elections, Montgomery voted for disfranchisement and endorsed the white supremacist regime from the floor. He claimed he was laying “the suffrage of 123,000 of my fellow-men at the feet of this convention” as “an olive branch of peace,” but Montgomery’s position didn’t reflect a consensus among black Mississippians, who reviled him as a traitor.
Mound Bayou underscores the problem of formulations that posit generic racial political programs, like “self-determination”: they hinge on a slippage between first-person singular and first-person plural that can mystify elite agendas. Part of the price of Montgomery’s experiment in “racial” accomplishment was his support for the disenfranchisement of nearly the entire black population of Mississippi, a price that he unilaterally determined was acceptable. Incidentally, Montgomery became one of the richest black people in the state.
In one respect, the comparison of Soul City and Mound Bayou is unfair—to Mound Bayou. By 1915, the town boasted a population of over 1,000 and was home to twenty-three stores and shops, including two drug stores, and two licensed physicians, two lawyers, a real-estate agent, and six churches. At one point it had three cotton gins. Soul City never came close to reaching that population size or extent of institutional development. Its most substantial historical footprint was as a conduit for federal funds that installed a regional water system for Warren, Vance, and Granville counties. It also secured $2 million in education funding for Warren and Vance counties and $1.8 million for healthcare services.
The Washington connection is pertinent in this regard as well. The conviction that accumulation of property and wealth mark the most secure and dependable route to black advancement has defined a tendency in black American discourse since the late nineteenth century. That view, then and since, has been shared most widely among business and professional strata, and aspirants to those strata, as historians August Meier, Judith Stein, and Kevin K. Gaines have established in their studies of Bookerism. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP from 1964 to 1977, dismissed “black capitalism” as “simple nonsense,” noting that “the bulk of all people who work will earn their living as workers—as employees, not as entrepreneurs.” (Yet he subsequently lauded Soul City as the Nixon administration’s sole true contribution to black people.) McKissick’s embrace of Bookerism was somewhat ambivalent, at least at the rhetorical level; he wanted capitalism without its cutthroat, inegalitarian connotations. Healy reports that McKissick did not like the term “black capitalism” but “preferred ‘black entrepreneurialism’ or even ‘black socialism,’ believing those terms better captured the combination of wealth accumulation and redistribution he had in mind.”
McKissick’s desire for an idealized capitalism reflected the incoherence of the Black Power ideology that informed his dreams for Soul City. Healy mentions Robert L. Allen’s critique of corporate funding in Black Power circles in his 1969 book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, and his argument that black capitalism, as Healy puts it, “would simply replace white exploiters with black ones.” More pointedly, Harold Cruse sharply criticized Black Power advocates’ reluctance to acknowledge the conservative, Bookerite implications of their ideology and what he saw as a willful confusion regarding their programmatic antecedents (they preferred to claim political descent from Third World anti-colonialist revolutionaries). McKissick was hardly alone in believing, or wanting to believe, that racial alchemy could save black enterprise from rehearsing capitalism’s systemic logic of accumulation by dispossession and generations of economic inequality.
As much as Soul City was the product of Floyd McKissick’s imagination and tenacious effort, it was also an expression of the institutionalization of Black Power in the late 1960s. McKissick’s dream of a self-sufficient, black-led town developed from scratch depended from the first on government and foundation support. That dependence was intensified by McKissick’s commitment to locate Soul City in rural Warren County, which offered neither developed infrastructure nor a substantial workforce. Healy chronicles McKissick’s often poignantly frustrating efforts to line up potential private investors through the layered bureaucratic processes required to access the federal grants and loan guarantees that would have been necessary to undertake his development project. Similarly, McKissick had to try to reconcile the fact that he dreamed of a black city with the limitation that federal funds would not go to support a racially separatist venture. He argued that it both was and was not intended to be an all-black undertaking, which was a further source of confusion.
The question Healy does not ask is why anyone should have cared then or should care now about the difficulties that confronted McKissick’s dream. It never could have made a dent in black poverty or unemployment. Access to a low-wage labor force was McKissick’s principal enticement to companies he attempted to woo. Historian Devin Fergus has pointed out that McKissick openly touted the state’s anti-union right-to-work laws in his promotional materials, a gambit that prompted Bayard Rustin to rebuke McKissick privately, noting, as Fergus puts it, that “closing the city to unions would be anathema to the late A. Philip Randolph, whose name had been affixed on the Industrial Park in Soul City from the project’s early days.” McKissick’s response to Rustin’s criticism was to drop Randolph’s name from the industrial park.
Healy does his lawyerly best to paint McKissick’s alliance with the Nixon administration in the most politically respectable light. He even strains to suggest that Nixon’s commitment of $19 million of federal Housing and Urban Development funds to Soul City was not a quid pro quo for McKissick’s aggressive support for the president’s 1972 reelection campaign. The fact is, though, if the Nixon administration had not made that large infusion of money to the project, it would have shriveled and died years sooner. And, as if in the spirit of Isaiah T. Montgomery, McKissick attempted to court ultra-reactionary North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who made clear even before he was elected that he intended to pull the plug on the Soul City project, even though the state’s other Republican leadership actively supported it. Helms emphatically rebuffed McKissick’s gestures of rapprochement.
The Nixon administration’s support for Soul City was consistent with its reformulation of Black Power as “black capitalism.” McKissick’s project could be something of a poster child, particularly in concert with his service in the reelection campaign. In a parallel development, the Ford Foundation and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity began shifting priorities by the end of the 1960s to support economic development projects over social service provision or mobilization of the poor. This marked a retreat from left or insurgent politics under the flag of Black Power. Soul City is, in that context, most significantly an emblem of the class character and contradictions of Black Power as a politics and ideology.
Healy asserts that McKissick’s dream lives on in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014 and beyond, because what black people “in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and so many other cities are demanding today is the same thing McKissick was seeking five decades earlier: respect, dignity, and control over their own destiny.” This is a forgivable author’s device, an attempt to encourage interest in his account among those who may not find Floyd McKissick’s story as riveting as he does. But the level of abstraction at which it is plausible to equate demands for justice in policing and the desire to develop an all-black town as pursuing “control over their own destiny” is vacuous. One may as well contend that they all shared an interest in breathing air. While Healy has no insidious motives, this tendency to ventriloquize all black people as wanting the same thing is one of the greatest impediments we face in trying to understand black American political history.
Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives (Verso, 2022). He serves on the boards of Food and Water Action and the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute and is a regular on DJDI’s Class Matters podcast.