Black-led utopia legacy lives on in Soul City, North Carolina: 'Courage and Conviction'

Tom George Image
Thursday, February 29, 2024
History of Soul City, North Carolina
After years fighting for racial justice, by the late 60's, Floyd McKissick had his biggest and craziest idea yet - A brand new town from the ground up, built on a dream of economic opportunity, called Soul City.

SOUL CITY, N.C. (WTVD) -- On a plot of land, down a dirt road in Warren County, you'll find an unsuspecting final resting place, for a larger-than-life figure.

"Courage and conviction" is marked on the tombstone of Civil Rights leader Floyd McKissick, Sr., who died in 1991.

"He was a crazy man, he did things people don't do, he was the first person to sue and go the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1951," says his daughter, Charmaine McKissick-Melton.

After years fighting for racial justice, by the late 60's, Floyd McKissick had his biggest and craziest idea yet - A brand new town from the ground up, built on a dream of economic opportunity, called Soul City.

Soul City Founder, Floyd McKissick, Sr

"Certainly everybody could live here, but with my dad's background in the Civil Rights movement, it was about making sure Black folk had their piece of the pie," McKissick says.

In 1969, after securing loans and land, they got to work. Charmaine McKissick-Melton remembers being a teenager when the family moved in - they pulled into the rural site in the middle of the night and almost got lost.

"And so we were all kind of like oh god this is it!?," she jokes.

But the project grew - at its peak, Soul City spanned thousands of acres - the brochures painted a picture of a thriving, diverse town. An industrial park called Soul Tech employed more than 200 people, and there was a public swimming pool, a fire station, and a health clinic.

They also brought in architect and future Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who looked at another new town a few hundred miles north in Columbia, Maryland as a roadmap.

"In some sense, Soul City swam against the economic tide whereas Columbia just swam with it," explains David Stebenne, a Columbia, Maryland native and history professor who studied the town's formation.

Unlike Soul City, Columbia was able to withstand the economy of the 70's. There they were backed by a white developer, Jim Rouse, and were surrounded by a booming Baltimore-DC metro area with an already strong Black middle class. Columbia is now among the largest communities in Maryland.

Meanwhile, Soul City, a Black-led project in those days was still very an uphill battle, especially in the South. Even the name turned some people off.

"When he said Soul he meant agape soul like, in the Bible, love for your fellow man, not James Brown say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud," McKissick says.

Things began to go downhill, after a series of negative articles in the press claiming financial improprieties. And when Jesse Helms was elected to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina, Helms told McKissick he would oppose the Soul City project.

Audits of the town found no wrongdoing, but the damage was done - HUD pulled the funding in 1979.

"Basically came in one afternoon and said there's no more money, there is no more money," McKissick says.

Now, the Soul City monolith still stands, but Soul City never became what it once was. The building housing Soul Tech is now part of the state prison system.

"Honestly the first time I drove by the barbed wire, I cried," McKissick says.

Their rural health care clinic, the only one for miles, stayed a few decades later, but eventually that shut down too, now covered in trees and vines. But Soul City's roots are still there.

The firehouse, the pool, the regional water system, the roads, and the infrastructure wouldn't be there without Soul City.

"Even now in 2024, Warren County and its officials have designated this space as the space for economic development," McKissick says.

And maybe one day, it'll inspire someone else to think big - someone with courage and conviction, and a lot of soul.

"He believed so strongly in the dream that he was trying to create that we all stayed for as long as we could because we believed in Floyd," McKissick says.

Charmaine McKissick-Melton still lives in Soul City in her father's house. She says she's encouraged to see new homes popping up.. She's also secured a grant hoping to convert a historic house into the McKissick Soul City Civil Rights Center to keep the legacy alive.

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