Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
An experiment in black urban planning revealed major racial disparities where toxic waste dumping sites were located—and sparked change.
The Soul City experiment initiated by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick in the 1970s to right racial urban ills ended in disappointment. It did not become the “spearhead of racial equality” that McKissick envisioned. Nor did it flower into a bouquet of black businesses to form a new southern economic engine, as he had hoped. Instead, Soul City’s goals were diminished by a relentless attack from journalists and conservatives criticizing McKissick’s motives, and a damning economic depression that decade that further suffocated the project.
It wasn’t a complete wash, though. Some saw it as a solid display of African-American driven urban planning, even if those plans didn’t pan out. Of the small population of people Soul City was able to draw, some still live there today (as did McKissick until his death in 1991, and as some of his family members still do). Filmmakers spoke with some of Soul City’s survivors for an upcoming documentary and found there is still some keeping of the flame in the town’s small corridors.
“There are people living there today for whom Soul City was and is their everything,” Soul City documentarian Sherea Delsol tells CityLab. “Talking to these people and seeing their faces light up when describing how proud they are to be a part of it is a huge part of the city’s legacy.”
Pride isn’t all that Soul City left behind. With the $20 million or so McKissick raised from North Carolina and the federal government, Soul City was able to build the region’s first real water system, new sewage infrastructure, a health clinic, and a newly mobilized political base—none of which previously existed in the rural setting it sprang up in to any modernized degree.
Before Soul City’s birth, the surrounding area of Warren County was among the poorest counties in the state, with a median household income of $1,958 in 1960, well below the nation’s average of $6,691. More than 60 percent of the county’s population were African Americans then, but virtually all of the elected officials of the time were white. It was a miracle that McKissick was able to install something like Soul City in the county at all given the political dominance of whites, not to mention the menacing presence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The specter of North Carolina’s Wilmington Riots, where whites ravaged black businesses and killed hundreds of African Americans when they began accumulating political power in the late 19th century, still loomed over the state. But McKissick, a World War II veteran, didn't scare easily, and was able to achieve detente with local white elected officials in preparation for Soul City’s landing in 1979, mainly by selling them on the shared regional benefits.
“There was no indoor plumbing or running water in many of the towns in Warren County, so McKissick said he would build it for them,” Ohio State University African-American Studies professor Devin Fergus tells CityLab. “This kind of horse trading gets local whites who were highly skeptical of his plans on board because they’re going to get something material out of it.”
McKissick used federal grants to develop a regional water system, which managed and distributed water resources to other small towns in unincorporated areas, and even to neighboring counties. And the health clinic built in Soul City delivered much-needed healthcare services to the county’s impoverished residents, white and black. Warren County probably benefitted more from the infrastructure funding McKissick raised than Soul City did.
But Soul City’s fall gave rise to something else. In June 1979, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development withdrew financial support from the Soul City project it helped launch, citing a lack of progress. That same month, North Carolina selected Warren County as the site for a landfill to stuff tens of thousands of gallons of toxic soil that had been illegally dumped elsewhere in the state. The landfill site was a 19.3 acre soybean field about 15 miles outside of Soul City. The once-destitute county was finally all dressed up with new plumbing and health facilities, and it was still getting dumped on.
North Carolina had considered 90 alternate locations around the state for the landfill, but whittled that list down to two: Warren County and Chatham County. Unlike Chatham, though, Warren did not own the land that the potential landfill site was on, and it also did not have a majority-white population. So the state settled on Warren, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s blessings.
Warren County, of course, wasn’t haven’t it. Perhaps reading the tea leaves, the county passed a local ordinance banning the storage of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—a cancer-causing chemical compound—on its grounds in August 1978. They were concerned that the PCBs would leak into their water supply and cause illness. The state and EPA overrode the ordinance, and stuck with the site anyway.
To contest this, Warren County brought back its native son Dr. Charles Mulchi from the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who found that the site was unsuitable for the expected deluge of toxic soil. The area’s local groundwater source was only seven feet away from the pocket where the poisoned dirt would be dumped. EPA guidelines stated that the distance needed to be at least 50 feet.
The county filed two lawsuits against the state over the siting, which slowed the process down but failed to stop it, as the county did not prevail in either. There was one last-ditch effort from the local NAACP chapter to halt the landfill; the organization sued, claiming racial discrimination for picking a site in a predominantly African-American and mostly poor county. That lawsuit didn’t prevail, either.
The state, along with the EPA, hosted a number of public hearings over the matter, where they tried to assure residents that the landfill would be safely designed—the “Cadillac of landfills,” as the governor once put it—and would not pose health risks. At one seven-hour hearing, some 650 residents turned up, all to speak out against the landfill. As The Washington Post reported, a local pastor named Reverend Willie Ramy said at that long hearing, "If it means we have to stand bodily in front of bulldozers, trucks and moving equipment, to give our very lives to save lives in the future, I say it is our right and our duty to sacrifice ourselves.”
That’s exactly what happened. The lawsuits delayed landfill construction for a few years, but the trucks started rolling in by September 1982, filled with the PCB-tainted soil. Residents formed the Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs, which protested for weeks in defiance. And when the trucks approached, they fulfilled Reverend Ramy’s threat by laying one by one face up on the road the trucks were using to get to the landfill, as captured in this iconic photo:
Between this and other acts of civil disobedience, hundreds of people were arrested, including McKissick, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Reverend Joseph Lowery, and U.S. Congressman Walter Fauntroy. It was a kind of early iteration of Black Lives Matter, with people literally laying their lives down, while fighting off state troopers and National Guard men who were called in to break up the rallies.
Also among those arrested was Reverend Benjamin Chavis, the then-director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice, a national religious network that was one of the more radical branches of the Protestant church. Chavis used the term “environmental racism” to describe why the state had picked Warren County to dump the poisonous dirt in.
Meanwhile, the United Church of Christ was also making noise about Soul City, whose reputation by 1983 had been almost completely besmirched. It was bad enough that bad press, racist elected officials like then-Senator Jesse Helms, and the economic downturn had scared corporations from locating there as McKissick had hoped. With a huge pit of toxic soil now planned for the area, Soul City would be on even worse ground.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office was instrumental here. It was first called in in the 1970s to audit Soul City’s finances, and its final report on that absolved the city of all the major charges lobbed against it. The GAO was called back in 1983 to study siting and permitting decisions for landfills. What the agency found this time was that, out of four hazardous-waste landfill sites, African Americans were the majority population around three of them, and at least 26 percent of the population around all four locations lived below the poverty level.
While the GAO compiled that report, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice was conducting its own, much more exhaustive study. Analyzing location data on hundreds of hazardous waste sites around the nation, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, released in 1987, revealed that these facilities were far more often situated near communities with large minority populations than communities with majority-white populations, even after controlling for income. Three of the nation’s five largest commercial hazardous-waste landfills, which accounted for 40 percent of the country’s landfill capacity, were located near predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods.
Additional studies showing similar results were produced at universities and by government bodies including the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies, all of which formed a body of scholarship that became the empirical underpinning of what became the environmental justice movement. In the early 1990s, the EPA created an environmental justice office to investigate these matters, and President Bill Clinton signed an executive order stating that federal agencies would have to consider the racial demographics of a location before finalizing permitting and siting decisions.
The United Church of Christ revisited the landfill problem in 2007, and revealed in its report Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty that the problem of racial discrimination in locating these facilities had not changed. And it’s still a problem. Grievances filed in the past year alone regarding the construction of toxic waste facilities near poor, minority communities have been reported in the majority-black Brentwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the majority-black Wedgewood community in northern Florida, Brooklyn, and plenty of other low-income neighborhoods in other states.
The problem is that the nation still doesn’t really know what to do with this kind of waste, and so a lot of it ends up traveling through the paths of least resistance—namely marginalized communities where the residents lack political power. Cities and counties are often helpless when the state and federal government imposes siting decisions on them, as was seen in Warren County. So people of color and the poor too often end up having to live with other people’s trash, with their health suffering because of it.
As Pratt Institute sustainability studies professor Carl A. Zimring writes in his forthcoming book Clean and White, A History of Environmental Racism, “Without attention to the cultural constructions of waste and race, and the material consequences of those constructions, the United States will be home to environmental inequalities well into the future.”
The Warren County PCB Landfill was exactly the disaster Mulchi and others said it would be. As University of Michigan environmental science professor Dorceta Talor described in her 2014 book Toxic Communities, Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution and Residential Mobility:
Even before the landfill was capped, there were signs of trouble. Heavy rains from a hurricane caused erosion and the accumulation of about 500,000 gallons of water at the site before the capping was concluded. Three months after the site was capped, residents photographed gas bubbles in the liner; they also reported a gurgling sound coming from the landfill.
The federal government didn’t get around to remediating the PCBs in the soil until 2003. Soul City had mostly dried up by that point. The construction of the landfill had been the final insult to almost a decade’s worth of injuries to the city’s reputation. A number of companies were seriously considering locating there, but with a big, poison pit near the water supply, the company went elsewhere.
But what arose in Soul City’s wake was a politically charged and organized populace whose resistance to the PCB landfill effectively reignited the civil rights movement, which had been dormant since Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination. Soul City’s resistance paved the way to a national movement that has helped produce stronger environmental and civil-rights protections in federal policies.