In 2022, the Purpose Built Communities team celebrated Black History Month with a discussion about Soul City, a concept envisioned and brought to life with mixed success by American lawyer/Civil Rights activist-turned-developer Floyd B. McKissick.

Soul City was a predominantly Black planned community in Warren County, North Carolina. McKissick’s vision was to build a new community from the ground up that would include mixed-income housing, robust commerce, recreational spaces, and myriad opportunities for employment for residents. In 1972, he received initial funding for the 3,500-acre project through the National Urban Policy and New Community Development Act of 1970, an effort of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to utilize private developers to build new towns. What was unique about his vision is that while the community was inclusive of all races, the focus was to create a sort of utopia for Black Americans. McKissick famously once said, “Everybody thinks of integration on white people’s terms. Integration is fine when it’s 80% white and 20% Black. Nobody can conceive of integration where the Blacks constitute 80% and the whites constitute 20%.”

That last point is one that stuck with the Purpose Built staff and opened up our discussion to ponder: is it fair, just, or even plausible for Black Americans to have a community that is uniquely and specifically their own, one where integration as we typically experience it is not the goal? We did not arrive at a set conclusion, and Floyd McKissick’s dream was never fully realized due to lack of funding, racism, and politics, but hope endures by fostering communities that approach repair and neighborhood revitalization as an act of racial justice and the foundation for a thriving future for all.

Lawyer and civil rights leader Floyd McKissick

Soul City was not the first and has not been the last planned Black community in the United States. Notable others include Tulsa’s Greenwood District (once known as America’s “Black Wall Street” and the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre), Eatonville, Florida (the childhood home of author Zora Neale Hurston), and the Sweet Auburn District (birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr.) in Atlanta. And we have other great examples that happen to be part of the Purpose Built Network. In particular, Historic South Atlanta, home to Network Member, Focused Community Strategies (FCS).

Founded as “Brownsville” in the late 1800s, historic South Atlanta “grew into one of Atlanta’s hubs of black education, thought leadership, and culture.” Within its footprint included the historically Black Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University). And unfortunately, Brownsville also became one of the sites of the Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906. Over time, the neighborhood, once an enclave for middle and upper-class Black families, succumbed to continued racial discrimination, disinvestment, and population loss. Around 2008, South Atlanta was devastated by the financial crisis, like many other neighborhoods around the country. However, Focused Community Strategies, in collaboration with residents, municipal allies, philanthropic partners, and other dedicated donors, has been able to jump-start the revitalization process successfully and restore the neighborhood to its historic glory.

In addition to the successful Carver Market that employs neighbors from the community and models itself after small, neighborhood-based grocery stores of the past, FCS also established a thriving coffee shop and cafe, Community Grounds. These examples demonstrate how economic vitality can be established by ensuring people have jobs that pay a living wage and quality retail that meets their needs, but those factors alone do not lead to wealth building. We know that in this country, to truly build wealth is to own assets, and home ownership remains one of the chief ways that becomes possible. So, with this fact in mind, coupled with a commitment to neighborhood history and racial equity and a network of mission-aligned partners, FCS and South Atlanta residents embarked upon an ambitious journey that they can mark successful after fourteen years of evidence – the Rotational Capital Fund (RCF).

“Launching in 2009, FCS and its partners and neighbors created a Rotational Capital Fund that has, to date, acquired, developed, and sold over 100 homes to legacy residents and new neighbors at affordable price points, with another 30 homes at varying points in development. The RCF is currently capitalized at the multi-million dollar level and has led to the creation of a parallel fund that develops rental housing for neighbors with incomes at 30-80% of the area median income, as well as the development of an emerging Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that will create flexible mortgage products for these same renting neighbors to become homeowners.”

FCS’ work alongside South Atlanta residents and partners for more than twenty years has enabled it to become a model for restoring home ownership to Black legacy residents in Atlanta and across the Purpose Built Network. The Rotational Capital Fund, in particular, demonstrates how to operationalize and actualize racial equity effectively through home ownership.

“The Rotational Capital Fund has effectively shared and transferred wealth held by majority culture individuals and institutions and, in reparative fashion, led to prosperity in place among Black families and other descendants of Brownsville—a community that was systemically and violently robbed of its wealth and stability through personally mediated and systemic racism. The diversity of the homeowners who purchased RCF-supported homes reflect the diversity of Historic South Atlanta over generations—the majority of these homeowners are African-American, and they reflect a profound diversity of age, family composition, and background.”

The amazing projects and initiatives happening in historic South Atlanta exemplify that racial equity and justice do not have to be casualties of a neighborhood’s economic vitality.

Many retrospectives of Soul City frame it as a “failure.” And while that particular vision did not come to fruition, neighborhoods in the Purpose Built footprint are, in many ways, the legacy of that vision. As long as we’re all here and working to create pathways to opportunity and prosperity in each and every neighborhood, there is no failure, only progress.