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. 

Thomas Healy is the author of The Great Dissent, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is a professor at Seton Hall Law School and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. A native of North Carolina, he lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters.

“An engrossing and often heartbreaking look at a singular attempt to achieve some measure of racial equality in the U.S.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review 

“Full of incisive character sketches and thought-provoking insights into the politics of Black empowerment, this is a worthy elegy for what might have been” —Publishers Weekly


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