The Black American City That Almost Came to Be

Healy’s greatest strength is his eye for the procedural details — the who, what, when and where of the Soul City story. Yet his book is a lost opportunity. “My goal in telling the story of Soul City is not to assign blame,” he writes. “It is to understand the forces that led to its downfall and the lessons it offers for the pursuit of racial equality today.” As someone who has spent a career writing about racial equality, I can promise you that it is impossible to further that cause without assigning blame, and Healy’s reticence on this point ultimately makes Soul City a soulless book.

One part of the problem is Healy’s reluctance to contextualize the case of Soul City. He acknowledges racism generally but presents the slow and inevitable collapse of the project as though it were separate from the wider phenomenon of institutionalized inequality. Nixon was a booster of Soul City, yet it was his administration, through the grant-giving powers of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, that provided the seed money for the criminal justice juggernaut that we are now working to dismantle. Under Nixon, the agency’s budget more than tripled, to $850 million.

That Soul City’s fate is directly bound up with this development is evident in the fact that, though the town’s residential neighborhoods were never completed and today only about 200 people reside in them, Soul Tech I is now a manufacturing plant for janitorial supplies that relies on the labor of prisoners at a nearby correctional

But there are other implications of Healy’s procedural approach. We are too rarely given access to the internal lives of the main characters during their most trying moments. For example, the word “soul” in Soul City was a major obstacle to McKissick’s efforts to attract investment from major companies like General Motors. Such corporations perceived the word as “too Black,” even separatist, and thus likely to scare off potential white residents (Soul City was meant to be Black-run but residentially integrated).

McKissick refused to change the name until it was too late. His connection to the word was likely multifaceted, but its significance in the book is unwittingly commandeered by this racist complaint. It is not until the epilogue, when McKissick, figuring out life after heartbreak, takes up preaching, that we learn he had always dreamed of being in the pulpit and long held strong religious sentiments. That this fundamental trait is withheld from us until the end means that we are deprived of full knowledge of McKissick and the context for his seemingly stubborn refusal to abandon the name “Soul City.”

Smaller problems abound as well. Though Healy early invokes the fact that Soul City was located near Klan country, he only ever vaguely signals that the city faced local racial resistance. And though he energetically describes a minor player in the Watergate scandal as a “dirty trickster,” somehow the segregationist Senator Jesse Helms, who promised McKissick that he’d “kill Soul City,” is never called what he was: a racist.

There is much to be learned in “Soul City” about the facts of the case. But if we want to know what the project meant at the time and what it should mean for us today, Healy’s book provides more of a reason to move on from rather than linger on its pages.

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