New Town, Black Utopia: Review of Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy
Joe P. L. Davidson
Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia. By Thomas Healy. Metropolitan Books, February 2, 2021.
When Thomas More was imagining his utopia in the sixteenth century, he started it from the perfect position. Located on an isolated island sheltered from the corrupting forces of the rest of the world, More’s utopians could begin from a tabula rasa, building an ideal social order from the ground up.
Planning an intentional community in the 1970s, Floyd McKissick had no such advantage. Surveying the land in Warren County, North Carolina, that would provide the site for a new Black-led city, the evidence of past racial suffering was hard to miss. A former plantation where hundreds of slaves had laboured to produce tobacco, the site still had a number of “original” features, including ramshackle outhouses and a white eighteenth-century mansion. The landscape contained a warning: If McKissick was to build a Black utopia, he would have to fight against the accumulated sludge of American racism.
Thomas Healy’s Soul City is about the failure of this endeavour, recounting how a combination of bureaucratic maladroitness, political timidness, and blatant prejudice stifled the dream of a new Black town. Healy, a professor of Law at Seton Hall University, tells the story of Soul City with a historian’s eye for detail and the impassioned commitment of the partisan, using archival resources and interviews with key players to tease out the web of forces that scuppered the Soul City project. In doing so, Healy judiciously recuperates the largely forgotten desire for an African-American new town in the North Carolinian countryside; Soul City undertakes the valuable task of rescuing this bold relic of the radical 1970s from obscurity.
If there is someone who is not to blame for the failure of the utopian project, at least according to Healy’s account, it is McKissick, who emerges as a tenacious advocate for the community. During the 1960s, McKissick’s leadership of the Congress of Racial Equality, the key organisational force behind the Freedom Rides, had catapulted him to national prominence. However, by the end of the decade, he had become convinced that equality could not be achieved by purely political means. Black people also needed economic power. Rather than attempting the difficult work of extracting assets from the cold grip of white industrialists, landlords, and bankers, McKissick had a more straightforward approach: build a new city, where all the key economic functions are under the control of Black people.
McKissick’s post-Civil Rights desire to transform the economic fate of African Americans coincided with residual social-democratic interventionism in the United States, creating a fragile opening for the Soul City initiative. The federal government, concerned about urban overcrowding, had initiated a new towns programme, which promised the creation of dozens of new communities across the country. McKissick and his colleagues successfully made the case for Soul City to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the early 1970s.
Soul City is not a hagiography of McKissick, however. Intent on seeing the city built, McKissick made one compromise after another. Having railed against the banks and the corporations as key components of a racist economic system in the 1960s, McKissick was eventually forced to go to each searching for funding and investment in his endeavour. Initially a critic of Richard Nixon and his attempt to woo white Southern voters disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s Civil Rights reforms, McKissick backed him in the 1972 presidential election in the hope of receiving greater support for Soul City. In the dying days of the project, when it became clear that some companies were refusing to invest in the city because of its name, McKissick even considered changing it to remove all African-American connotations.
However, there were certain forces McKissick was unable to parlay with. The glacial slowness of the HUD, which repeatedly delayed work on the project, the implacable opposition of neoliberal North Carolinian Senator Jesse Helms, and the muckraking reporting of influential local newspaper the News & Observer all ensured that work on Soul City was abandoned in 1979, leaving behind a handful of residents and the skeletons of a town.
Reading Healy’s fine-grained account of McKissick’s contortions in the face of opposition to Soul City, I was reminded of exactly why Marx and Engels were so sceptical of utopian projects in The Communist Manifesto. Simply put, the personal inventive action of a single individual such as McKissick is not a replacement for mass collective action. There are no shortcuts to utopia; pots of government money, however big, cannot slice through time to produce an ideal world in the here and now. By the end of Soul City, we are left with the distinct impression that there might not have been much left of the original dream had the project been completed, the constant concessions on the part of McKissick tending towards the realisation of an American city much like any other, with all the familiar relations of power and inequality. In other words, there is no anti-racism in one city.
But ultimately Healy’s account pushes the reader away from such a pessimistic judgement. Soul City can be compared to director Christopher Ian Smith’s documentary New Town Utopia (2018), which excavates the liberatory undercurrent of the actually existing town of Basildon in Essex, UK. The British new town experiment of the post-war period, which was a key influence on the American programme of which Soul City was a part, was inspired by a utopian impulse, Labour’s Lewis Silkin conjuring Thomas More’s vision when introducing the New Towns Bill in Parliament in 1946. In one sense, as Smith’s documentary highlights, the contemporary reality of Basildon is far from a utopia, the town experiencing poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Yet, if you look under the surface, there are flashes of hopeful possibility, the bold modernist architecture and spacious council houses indicating a utopian impulse that has not been entirely lost.
A similar feeling is cultivated as Healy describes his own visits to what remains of Soul City in the first and last chapters of the book. The planned city was never completed, but a few streets of houses, a handful of amenities, and a town sign were constructed before the project was abandoned. These scraps of a much grander project, and in particular the distinctive seventies-style swooshes of the Soul City sign, prompt a sense of longing. The vision of McKissick and his fellow town planners can still be glimpsed in the ruins of Soul City, which contain a faint echo of the original hope that it inspired. A different path was possible. There was nothing inevitable about the movement from Civil Rights radicalism and incipient state planning to mass incarceration and neoliberalism.
For Healy’s book, in a modest way, is an alternative history of the 1970s. In one sense, Soul City does nothing to disturb the standard image of the 1970s as a time of transition from the radical politics of the 1960s to the conservative backlashes of the 1980s. However, in common with other reappraisals of this decade—Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010) and Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (2017), both particularly pertinent examples of the American context—Healy demonstrates that this movement from revolution to reaction did not take place without a struggle. Soul City was one node in an ecosystem of experiments that promised a world of justice and equality. The book succeeds in communicating the optimism of this moment. McKissick believed his city would be built, and this hopefulness is infectious: it could have been completed, things could have gone otherwise.
If there is one figure who embodies the inertial power of the failed project, it is Jane Groom. Although the narrative of Soul City is understandably driven by McKissick, Healy is careful to attend to other individuals who supported the project. Groom, a young mother of five children, began working for McKissick in New York before relocating her family to Soul City in 1969. She was crucial to ensuring the project weathered the turmoil of the next decade, doing everything from showing around dignitaries to chasing bobcats off the site. Groom still lives on one of the few streets completed before the project was shut down. Her life in the very small city, which has around two hundred residents, speaks to the potential for the dream, a microcosm of what could have been achieved. Healy gives Groom the last words of the book: “‘It’s not a mansion on the hill by a river,’ she said. ‘But it’s a far cry from the projects. To me, it was a blessing.'”
Yet, it would be wrong to say that Soul City conveys an easy sense of optimism. The forces that destroyed the dream of Soul City have also destroyed many Black lives in the decades that have followed the 1970s. Just as the site of Soul City bears the marks of slavery, it now also bears the marks of mass incarceration. An industrial complex completed on the site, which was known as Soul Tech I, has been taken over by a local prison, where a workforce of predominantly Black inmates earning roughly fifteen cents an hour produce soap. The image is almost too apt: a building that was designed to economically enrich African Americans is now used for their ruthless exploitation. Soul Tech I is a physical manifestation not only of the defeat of Soul City but also its annihilation and humiliation. But it is also a lesson about why the project was needed in the first place: no political equality without economic liberation. Now, more than ever, we should heed the words emblazoned on a poster in the Soul City office: “Dreams into Reality”.
Joe P. L. Davidson (he/him) is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. His thesis is focused on the relationship between temporality and utopia. He has recently published on retrotopian feminist fiction in Feminist Theory, neo-Victorian utopianism in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and W. E. B. Du Bois’s sociology of the future in The Sociological Review.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes from a hard pitch in April 2021. A review copy was not arranged by ARB.