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A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice The fascinating, forgotten story of the 1970s attempt to build a city dedicated to racial equality in the heart of “Klan Country” In 1969, with America’s cities in turmoil and racial tensions high, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick announced an audacious plan: he would build a new city in rural North Carolina, open to all but in A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice The fascinating, forgotten story of the 1970s attempt to build a city dedicated to racial equality in the heart of “Klan Country” In 1969, with America’s cities in turmoil and racial tensions high, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick announced an audacious plan: he would build a new city in rural North Carolina, open to all but intended primarily to benefit Black people. Named Soul City, the community secured funding from the Nixon administration, planning help from Harvard and the University of North Carolina, and endorsements from the New York Times and the Today show. Before long, the brand-new settlement – built on a former slave plantation – had roads, houses, a health care center, and an industrial plant. By the year 2000, projections said, Soul City would have fifty thousand residents. But the utopian vision was not to be. The race-baiting Jesse Helms, newly elected as senator from North Carolina, swore to stop government spending on the project. Meanwhile, the liberal Raleigh News & Observer mistakenly claimed fraud and corruption in the construction effort. Battered from the left and the right, Soul City was shut down after just a decade. Today, it is a ghost town – and its industrial plant, erected to promote Black economic freedom, has been converted into a prison. In a gripping, poignant narrative, acclaimed author Thomas Healy resurrects this forgotten saga of race, capitalism, and the struggle for equality. Was it an impossible dream from the beginning? Or a brilliant idea thwarted by prejudice and ignorance? And how might America be different today if Soul City had been allowed to succeed?


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A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice The fascinating, forgotten story of the 1970s attempt to build a city dedicated to racial equality in the heart of “Klan Country” In 1969, with America’s cities in turmoil and racial tensions high, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick announced an audacious plan: he would build a new city in rural North Carolina, open to all but in A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice The fascinating, forgotten story of the 1970s attempt to build a city dedicated to racial equality in the heart of “Klan Country” In 1969, with America’s cities in turmoil and racial tensions high, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick announced an audacious plan: he would build a new city in rural North Carolina, open to all but intended primarily to benefit Black people. Named Soul City, the community secured funding from the Nixon administration, planning help from Harvard and the University of North Carolina, and endorsements from the New York Times and the Today show. Before long, the brand-new settlement – built on a former slave plantation – had roads, houses, a health care center, and an industrial plant. By the year 2000, projections said, Soul City would have fifty thousand residents. But the utopian vision was not to be. The race-baiting Jesse Helms, newly elected as senator from North Carolina, swore to stop government spending on the project. Meanwhile, the liberal Raleigh News & Observer mistakenly claimed fraud and corruption in the construction effort. Battered from the left and the right, Soul City was shut down after just a decade. Today, it is a ghost town – and its industrial plant, erected to promote Black economic freedom, has been converted into a prison. In a gripping, poignant narrative, acclaimed author Thomas Healy resurrects this forgotten saga of race, capitalism, and the struggle for equality. Was it an impossible dream from the beginning? Or a brilliant idea thwarted by prejudice and ignorance? And how might America be different today if Soul City had been allowed to succeed?

30 review for Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia

  1. 5 out of 5

    Raymond

    Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy is the story of one man's dream to build a majority Black city in rural NC and how that dream failed. Floyd McKissick was a civil rights leader who was also the founder and developer of Soul City, NC. His goal in building the city was to help build up the economic fortunes of African Americans in the region of the state. McKissick was a leader in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), he marched alongside Dr. King, Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy is the story of one man's dream to build a majority Black city in rural NC and how that dream failed. Floyd McKissick was a civil rights leader who was also the founder and developer of Soul City, NC. His goal in building the city was to help build up the economic fortunes of African Americans in the region of the state. McKissick was a leader in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), he marched alongside Dr. King, and later became associated with the Black Power movement. Soul City was a continuation of McKissick's vision of Black Power, especially Black economic autonomy. This book chronicles the constant battles that McKissick faced in order to create Soul City. I liked this book because Healy makes a story about the politics of city planning and developing interesting to read. The book contains a cast of characters that native North Carolinians will be familiar with: Harvey Gantt, Eva Clayton, and Jesse Helms to name a few. Soul City faced many challenges: critics who complained that it was a separatist city, government bureaucracy, the city's name, an obstructionist senator in Jesse Helms, a probing News and Observer reporter, and reluctant prospective business opportunities. Ultimately when it comes down to it I asked myself this question: Did Soul City ever stand a chance of succeeding? It seems not. Whether it was a mixture of it being Black developed, the city's name, or a mix of both; Soul City deserved more and should have been given more chances to grow and succeed. Healy tells an important story that should inform future developers who dream to build majority Black cities as McKissick attempted to do. Thanks to NetGalley, Metropolitan Books, and Thomas Healy for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. This book will be released on February 2, 2021.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sherrie

    ***I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway*** Have you heard of Soul City? Prior to reading this book, I hadn't. Soul City was an endeavor by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick to create a town that existed outside of segregation and integration and other racist issues of the 1960s. He wanted to create a place where Black people could thrive, own capital, run businesses, and live alongside their white neighbors as equals. For that time period, this is a truly audacious idea and what is remarkabl ***I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway*** Have you heard of Soul City? Prior to reading this book, I hadn't. Soul City was an endeavor by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick to create a town that existed outside of segregation and integration and other racist issues of the 1960s. He wanted to create a place where Black people could thrive, own capital, run businesses, and live alongside their white neighbors as equals. For that time period, this is a truly audacious idea and what is remarkable is how close he came to succeeding. McKissick inspired many people around him. He managed to gain funding from the federal government as part of the new communities act (the only Black man to do so). He had both Black and white people working hard to make this dream a reality. Unfortunately, racism is real and it's not always a redneck yelling slurs along the highway (though it is definitely that). McKissick had to fight against racist Senators, racist local newspapers, and he had to jump through more hoops than anyone else receiving funds from the same federal program. I give the author, a white man, a lot of credit for understanding and communicating the subtle ways racism doomed this venture (she said, as a white person...so take a grain of salt with that statement). Very few people would couch their concerns/critiques of Soul City in racial terms...but the effect is the same. It's insiduous. It fed on the average white person's fear of powerful Black people. The author was fair and didn't overdramatize the issues at hand, but by simply laying the facts out it's clear that Floyd McKissick was fighting an uphill battle on all fronts. Ultimately, Soul City was only partially built and never became the city it was meant to. Part of the land was sold off and is now a prison. And if that isn't the tragedy of America in microcosm, I don't know what is.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    Soul City in North Carolina was a HUD community that Nixon endorsed after Floyd McKissack sought funding for a suburban community focused on Africa Americans. He sought Republican support and got it but eventually ran into trouble with the Carter Administration and double digit inflation. McKissack had trouble attracting people to come and most importantly investors for jobs. It still exists but is slowing deteriorating away.

  4. 5 out of 5

    J Earl

    Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy is a fascinating history about a quickly forgotten piece of the struggle for social justice. This is one of those books that, for me, is greater than the sum of its parts. The writing is very good, the research is thorough, and the fact I had barely even heard about it (and knew no details) piqued my curiosity. Any of those three elements would have made this book a success for me. But the way these are woven toge Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy is a fascinating history about a quickly forgotten piece of the struggle for social justice. This is one of those books that, for me, is greater than the sum of its parts. The writing is very good, the research is thorough, and the fact I had barely even heard about it (and knew no details) piqued my curiosity. Any of those three elements would have made this book a success for me. But the way these are woven together, history within a narrative and the narrative in some ways being both then and now, all in a very engaging style made this a great read. I think there is little doubt that racism was the single biggest factor in the demise of the city, but through this detailed examination of what is involved in creating a planned city from scratch we can also see the other more bureaucratic obstacles that would impede any such endeavor. Because racism is built into American institutions and bureaucracies, those obstacles any such city would have faced were significantly larger for Soul City. I would recommend this to readers who like to read about recent history, especially as it pertains to racial and social issues. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Linda Janssen

    The concept of Thomas Healy's Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia is intriguing: lifelong racial activist Floyd McKissick's dream - aided by the efforts of many and surprisingly funded by the US Government - to build a Black city in rural North Carolina in the fragmented aftermath of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Named Soul City, this venture was dedicated to racial equality and Black economic empowerment. Well researched and meticulously documented, this book The concept of Thomas Healy's Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia is intriguing: lifelong racial activist Floyd McKissick's dream - aided by the efforts of many and surprisingly funded by the US Government - to build a Black city in rural North Carolina in the fragmented aftermath of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Named Soul City, this venture was dedicated to racial equality and Black economic empowerment. Well researched and meticulously documented, this book chronicles not only the rise and fall of this little known utopian endeavor, but also the 20th century civil rights movement itself. Law professor Healy's background as a journalist serves him well, bringing this timely, true story to life with clean, evocative prose, and the narrative sensibility and flow of fiction. I was provided an advanced reader copy by Henry Holt & Company and NetGalley; views are entirely my own.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jill Kleis

    Extra points for the Interesting Black history education, minus points for being mostly a book about government bureaucracy. If you’re interested in the workings of HUD in the 1970’s, this is the book for you.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Luke Johnson

    Soul City is the true story of Floyd McKissick, an African-American man and Civil Rights leader, who decides to start his own town in rural North Carolina. Taking advantage of newly passed legislation from the U.S. government, he intends to create a Marcus Garvey-esque movement that is not "Back to Africa" but instead "Back to the South". Created primarily for the descendents of former slaves, McKissick hopes to bring home those who have found life away from the South not what they had hoped it Soul City is the true story of Floyd McKissick, an African-American man and Civil Rights leader, who decides to start his own town in rural North Carolina. Taking advantage of newly passed legislation from the U.S. government, he intends to create a Marcus Garvey-esque movement that is not "Back to Africa" but instead "Back to the South". Created primarily for the descendents of former slaves, McKissick hopes to bring home those who have found life away from the South not what they had hoped it would be. The book starts out incredibly interesting as the reader enjoys a biography of McKissick from his boyhood through his days as a Civil Rights leader and activist. It's around a good third of the way into the book before the work to create Soul City even really begins. I actually enjoyed this first part of the book more than the later sections which is often repetitious with account after account of McKissick fighting with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the funds he has been promised. Though McKissick's dedication to Soul City is highly applaudable, the project does seem unlikely of success. One will no doubt ask themselves that quesion - was Soul City was doomed from the start? Labelled from the beginning as a seperatist enclave, often defamated in the press, sabotagued by government departments and racist government officials (namely Jesse Helms), and built in an already economically disadvantaged area should McKissick not have seen the writing on the wall to begin with? I ask because I don't know, and that is a question each reader will have to answer for themselves. I do not feel as though McKissick is deserving of the majority of the blame, infact just the opposite. I see his hopes as more ahead of the times as this book takes places in the late '60s to mid '70s primarily. Over a half century later, America still has many problems with racism. Even a century and a half post-Civil War not just African Americans but for all non-white Americans equality has yet to be attained. Even as I read this book, the story of a white gunman killing (primarily female) Asian-Americans in Atlanta has been headline news. But despite how you feel about whether or not Soul City was a fool's errand or not, the book is well worth the read. It's an interesting look at the life of a Civil Right leader who actually died in his home at an old age instead of being assassinated for a change. It's one more example of the way structural racism has hurt not just a minority population but the country as a whole. Much of what McKissick was doing / did was very positive - the hospital and water treatment facilities especially. The issue of racism is not the dominate theme here, the book is never preachy, so if you're looking for a history book that deals with African Americans trying to better their lives without hitting you over the head with the inequality that very much does exist, this is a book I would definitely recommend.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Full disclosure: I am friends with the author. I will do my best to be unbiased in my review. I grew up in NC, and I was a small child when Soul City was being built (and yes, that is the actual name of the city; Soul City is not a nickname). As a fan of history, I was surprised I had never heard of Floyd McKissick's attempt to build a town for Black empowerment through a new city in a poor, depressed, Klan heavy section of NC. Unlike other utopian plans, this one was not going to be a collective Full disclosure: I am friends with the author. I will do my best to be unbiased in my review. I grew up in NC, and I was a small child when Soul City was being built (and yes, that is the actual name of the city; Soul City is not a nickname). As a fan of history, I was surprised I had never heard of Floyd McKissick's attempt to build a town for Black empowerment through a new city in a poor, depressed, Klan heavy section of NC. Unlike other utopian plans, this one was not going to be a collective/commune city. McKissick was a capitalist at heart and he wanted a city where Black people worked and made money. It was an audacious plan, and one that almost worked. Through McKissick's work in the Civil Rights Movement, he became convinced that the way to help Black people was through economic opportunity. At the time, in the late 60's, Black people were migrating to the North in search of better economic opportunities; some found it, most did not. At the same time, there was a population boom, and new cities were being created. Not all of these new cities had been successful, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development felt there was potential for new cities, and were guaranteeing loans for approved projects. McKissick got the idea to build a new city, but one where Black people would be in charge. The city would be called Soul City. This book is the story of Floyd McKissick, his attempt to create a new city, the challenges he faced, and the opponents to his project (for anyone familiar with NC politics, they will not be surprised that one of the chief opponent had the first name of "Jesse"). As a history, it is a fascinating read of a plan so audacious, made by those without the background and experience you would think necessary to undertake such a venture, but at the same time, how close they came to success. It was a testament to McKissick's character to have such a dream and get others to share in his vision. There is, however, another reason to read this book, and it is its relevance to America today. Throughout the book, there are parallels to the world of today. Haunting parallels, that made me question, has there been any progress in racial equality over the past 50 years? As a white person (another disclosure), I liked to think that there has been ongoing progress in race equality (sometimes very slow progress, but progress), and that the events of the last few years were the anomaly. While reading "Soul City", and looking at the parallels, I'm worried that the progress that I have seen is the anomaly. I would highly recommend this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

    I was already on a tour of utopian city-building projects when I stumbled upon this book. (Side note: I stumbled upon it in an actual bookstore, the first time I had been in one of those in a year. It was great!) The concept -- of a Black-built city project run by a former CORE leader on a former slave plantation in the 1970s -- was fascinating. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that it was not built. Also, the gut-wrenching kicker is revealed in the intro: what was to have been the main in I was already on a tour of utopian city-building projects when I stumbled upon this book. (Side note: I stumbled upon it in an actual bookstore, the first time I had been in one of those in a year. It was great!) The concept -- of a Black-built city project run by a former CORE leader on a former slave plantation in the 1970s -- was fascinating. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that it was not built. Also, the gut-wrenching kicker is revealed in the intro: what was to have been the main industrial building ends up becoming a workplace for basically-unpaid prison labor. The main character, Floyd McKissick, is a civil rights hero who throws his hat in with Nixon to further the cause of Black Capitalism, is a great leading man. There's interesting stuff to learn in here, and it tells a good story about how an ambitious project was waylaid by tepid government support. DC promises to help through a project to help fund the creations of new towns, but then drags its feet after the project is planned around it, with further gear thrown in the sands by the racist opposition of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. There's also a revealing case study of the downside to crusading journalism. Soul City was the subject of a progression of unfair newspaper articles, which significantly undermined the public view of the project. The most damaging was a series of investigations from a local reporter who was fixated (as many good reporters are) on exposing government waste. Much of what he found what technically true but picayune and misrepresenting. This book gives a compelling account of how those articles were both wrong-headed and potentially ruinous for Soul City. As a narrative this book about huge themes like race and the tension between purity and pragmatism is dissipated by the fact that much the action centers around the frustrations of government bureaucracy. You spend a lot of time feeling deadened while waiting along with the idealists to see if the next step in the government loan guarantees will go through. Sometimes this is because Helms or other opponents are putting fingers on the scale; other times it's just because federal programs are slow an ineffective. At least that fatigue seems like an accurate reproduction of what it must have felt like to feel Soul City slip away.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Miguel

    Highly detailed history on the attempt to build a separate society for Africa Americans in North Carolina in the 70's. Utopian histories are always interesting and always seem to fail in their own peculiar way: Soul City did seem to get slammed by the difficult financing everyone faced in the high inflation environment of the 1970’s. However, what was lacking a bit here was what the actual living at the community felt like for ordinary residents: the book goes into so much detail of what’s happe Highly detailed history on the attempt to build a separate society for Africa Americans in North Carolina in the 70's. Utopian histories are always interesting and always seem to fail in their own peculiar way: Soul City did seem to get slammed by the difficult financing everyone faced in the high inflation environment of the 1970’s. However, what was lacking a bit here was what the actual living at the community felt like for ordinary residents: the book goes into so much detail of what’s happening behind the scenes with permissions, funding and external actors exploring the highly political aspects of this community that it sort of misses what the actual lived experience was actually like. That said, it's still a very interesting chapter on an underreported experiment in the midst of a very biased environment.

  11. 4 out of 5

    John Siphers

    Five stars if you’re from NC and had knew something of this project or the players - maybe four stars for everyone else. I had a hazy recollection of the project, but didn’t remember how it had begun. What a remarkable attempt this was to build McKissock’s dream. Maybe overly ambitious as seen in hindsight, but it was certainly worth trying. Unfortunately the end result was failure, though there was no single reason for the end result. The author paints a fairly sympathetic view of McKissock and Five stars if you’re from NC and had knew something of this project or the players - maybe four stars for everyone else. I had a hazy recollection of the project, but didn’t remember how it had begun. What a remarkable attempt this was to build McKissock’s dream. Maybe overly ambitious as seen in hindsight, but it was certainly worth trying. Unfortunately the end result was failure, though there was no single reason for the end result. The author paints a fairly sympathetic view of McKissock and his team, and is much more critical of the project’s detractors. Given who the detractors were, however, it’s easy to agree with the author.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Beverly Hallfrisch

    Obviously given the title, and the author warns upfront this is not a "success" story, but I still couldn't help rooting for the city and the people throughout. Well done providing lots of background and detail. I learned a lot. The magnitude of city planning is daunting. The magnitude of the aspirations and effort was inspiring. Obviously given the title, and the author warns upfront this is not a "success" story, but I still couldn't help rooting for the city and the people throughout. Well done providing lots of background and detail. I learned a lot. The magnitude of city planning is daunting. The magnitude of the aspirations and effort was inspiring.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Anne Hatchaway

    The book is totally deserving. I loved it, and I think they are must read. If you have some great stories like this one, you can publish it on Novel Star, just submit your story to [email protected] or [email protected]

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris Barsanti

    A lively narrative about the little-known 1970s crusade by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick to create a brand new integrated city out of nothing in the middle of North Carolina. My full review was published at PopMatters. A lively narrative about the little-known 1970s crusade by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick to create a brand new integrated city out of nothing in the middle of North Carolina. My full review was published at PopMatters.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bookster16

    Well researched, well written, VERY ENGAGING! Read this book for a fresh perspective on the not-so-old South.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tony

  17. 4 out of 5

    Wyatt

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Adkison

  19. 4 out of 5

    Colby

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mary Wallace

  21. 4 out of 5

    Pat

  22. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sara Zizzo

  24. 4 out of 5

    Claudyne Vielot

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rondeline Williams

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kb

  27. 4 out of 5

    Devin Ryder

  28. 4 out of 5

    Johnisha

  29. 4 out of 5

    Maisha

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cari Strieby

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