Abstract: A New South and a New City: Race and Rural Modernization in Soul City, North Carolina, 1969-1980

Betsy A. Beasley


In 1969, Floyd McKissick purchased a former plantation in rural North Carolina with the support of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. McKissick, a veteran civil rights leader, intended the land to be the location of a new town—dubbed Soul City—that would foster black empowerment and economic development. Joining forces with President Nixon, McKissick vowed to incorporate rural African Americans into American affluence and succeeded in bringing industrial infrastructure to the region. Remarkably, local white elites—historically the greatest opponents of any federal project that they did not directly control—came to support the project. When a coalition led by Jesse Helms attacked the project at the end of the decade, many local white residents mobilized alongside African Americans to defend Soul City. Yet opponents succeeded in ending federal support for the project in 1979. This paper moves beyond dismissals of Soul City as a utopian failure, an example of late 1960s optimism and ill-fated ambition. Instead, I argue that McKissick was able to push both the right and the left to support a state-sponsored economic development project with overt civil rights aims, suggesting that the 1970s held greater political possibilities than we often acknowledge.