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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Eva Clayton, July 18, 1989. Interview C-0084. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Trying to establish Soul City in Warren County, North Carolina

Clayton remembers and reflects on the significance of Soul City. Soul City was "ahead of its time," Clayton believes, as an effort to bring the economic and social opportunities of an urban setting to a rural environment. The effort failed: white male county commissioners resisted a black woman's effort to carve out something resembling a town in their area and denied Clayton and her colleagues necessary resources and services. Still, the project is not without its legacies. For example, the water system established for Soul City benefited established towns in the area. The experience taught Clayton that ambitions require money to flourish.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Eva Clayton, July 18, 1989. Interview C-0084. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Actually what you're saying there reminds me of, or several themes that you've mentioned, tie in with what I know about Soul City, the vision of economic development in rural areas and then, if I'm right in saying as the Executive Director of Soul City Foundation, you had more work with the social planning aspects of it, as opposed to the industrial area, the building of the city. Is that right?
EVA CLAYTON:
That's correct. However, there was a time when the Soul City Foundation, because it was a non-profit, could qualify for funds to do some building. The building that's still there was called the Soul City Company. The foundation received funds, built that as what they call an incubator. The notion was that small business would have a place to begin, to nurture, and to support each other, and then would go out into the industrial park and establishments. That never materialized, but the building was built by the Foundation. The company actually built the city and planned the roads and proposed the houses and those kinds of things. The Foundation was responsible for health care, was responsible for the cultural programs in the area, the education, the day care programs, and the one I indicated, the industrial incubator, but that's the extent of its involvement.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
By saying that I may have jumped ahead of the story a bit because I think it was in 1973 that you joined on with Soul City Foundation? Is that the right year?
EVA CLAYTON:
Yes.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Okay. What about the period from '68 to '73?
EVA CLAYTON:
From '68 to '71, I was still actively involved in the organization that was called Eastern North Carolina Economic Development Corporation, establishing the day care programs and the social programs that we had. And '71 to '73 I was with the University of North Carolina heading up their health/manpower program, which was a consortium of schools located at UNC for the purpose of encouraging minority students to go into health careers. I served as director of that. Then the Foundation opportunity came after [unclear] came to Warren County. In fact, he had come earlier. My husband was involved in identifying the land and the acquisition of that, so we were aware even when I went to UNC that that may be an opportunity. The Foundation opportunity came in 1973, when I joined the Foundation to work with them for a while.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
And what brought you to that position, what attracted you about working for Soul City?
EVA CLAYTON:
Oh, there was a lot to attract us to Soul City. Soul City probably is an idea that is [laughter] probably still too young, and it's ahead of its time, but it's still an idea that's worthwhile. Oh, it was visionary, it was bold, it had the concept, though not the financial backing as it turned out, to be a stimulus to turn around that kind of a rural area. What you were going to do, you were going to bring to bear, in a rural area, urban types of interactions, economic opportunities, and you were going to put in place facilities for persons to be recruited anywhere. You were going to have houses, you were going to have the shops, you were going to possibly have the schools. Soul City was proposed as a new town development that would be located in a rural area. So it first had to carve out what would be those local government structures that it would have. It never became a city, or a town, but the local government structure it proposed was to be a——can't think of the name of it. But it's a limited purpose government, and a limited purpose government allow you to build streets, to do the sewage and do the water. In the meantime, they would work through the county. Well, the dynamics of working at that time, through the county commissions was controlled by, most, well, all men, no doubt about that, because I'm the first woman ever to be there. And all white, and usually older men, who were in the traditional power structure. [They] felt threatened by this, felt that here's this new going to spend all this money. they resented the fact that they [Soul City planners] were able to get monies for water and sewage and roads in many instances, when they weren't able, or hadn't tried or whatever. And secondly, didn't believe that blacks could plan anything. But amazingly the community did indeed. The idea was bold enough to attract both white and black, was bold enough to attract extremely talented people. In fact it attracted me, you know, I had no doubt about that. If I look now at the people who went to Soul City, one is now the dean of Mehary Medical School, one was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce here, the person who first came to do the health went back to Cook Hospital, which is the largest hospital in the country. So the boldness of bringing health services, bringing economic development, was an idea that was very exciting to a lot of people. The foundations were interested, the University of North Carolina received [laughter] probably more than the Soul City Foundation did, a lot of foundation money to do all kinds of studies on that. At least three research people who have talked about Soul City, there are books now.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
Yes. [laughter]
EVA CLAYTON:
So the idea's without its equal in a community that was that depressed. However, that experience did teach me a couple things. As bold as the idea is, and as imaginative as you can think you would have in motivating and inspiring, you also need to have a politics and the money. And if you have the politics, I think you can get the money. I don't mean politics in the sense of black politics, but politics in the sense of whoever's in power willing to take that risk. And that was not there consistently, you know, when the pressure got too hot or . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
EVA CLAYTON:
. . . saying that the pressure came and there was not the consistent political support. The pressure came in the form of an audit, a GAO [General Accounting Office] audit that was intense and thorough and humiliating, and all kinds of accusations with that. Didn't find one unallowable cost. They found some areas where they said there could have been [better] management. What Soul City was doing, and the complexity of what it was doing——it was an excellent audit in terms of that. But because it didn't have the consistent political support at the national level and at the local level, the first opportunity to pull the support financially. And that was so tenuous, it was so tenuous on good will and public acceptance. Of course, all business in the long run is related to markets, no question about that, but you need to have a support sufficient enough to try an idea. If it's a new idea, why do you think you're going to be able to implement it overnight? Soul City didn't have the time, it didn't have the consistent political support. It didn't suffer from ideas, it didn't suffer from leadership, it didn't suffer for a need, and, in my judgment, the project is still an economic advantage to our country and it will become even a greater economic advantage to our country.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
By that you mean what has remained behind, even though the city never was built on that land?
EVA CLAYTON:
Right. Although the city itself was never there. You have the infrastructure there that's going to be supportive to businesses in the future. You have the infrastructure there that has caused economic development to happen in the whole region. Soul City organized the first regional water system in this state, it's the largest one now. And so Oxford has benefitted, Henderson's benefitted, and Warren County's benefitted, far more than Soul City itself benefitted. In fact, that was the compromise. Soul City came up with the idea of tapping the lake with the water. No one else had thought of that. The embarrassment of that. And what you have to do with the politics of that. It started off with, what makes sense, to bring infrastructure here, rather than create the wealth. So that turned out to be a very positive thing and it continuously has been and will continue to be economic development for the region. Now for our particular community of Warren County, the industrial development that's there——we have Owens Illinois, Nikrecho, I can never think of its new name, it was so quiet last year, its name is Nikrecho, I think. Owens Illinois moved there knowing it had water, it had streets, it was an industrial base. There is evidence it is now serving as an economic incentive to our county.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
I'm thinking too in some ways we've gone a little bit ahead of the story here, too, in the sense that,
EVA CLAYTON:
It's hard for me to live in the past. I wouldn't be doing all the things I'm doing if I had such vivid memories of the past.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
That's why I'm the one with the timeline in front of me. [Both laugh.] I'm thinking that you left while it was still very much a going concern. Is that right? In terms of your primary focus, you left for state government in '75, so all of this in terms of the audit was in the late '70s. If Soul City was still very much a going concern when you left, what was it that pulled you away into state government?
EVA CLAYTON:
It was an opportunity to do something different and I am one open to new opportunities. And I grow by a variety of things and I think that's what makes Eva Clayton unique. And the opportunity was for me to be in the cabinet, or sub-cabinet, of Jim Hunt, and I was offered that opportunity and they asked if I would consider it and I said, yes, and I did.
KATHRYN NASSTROM:
And an interest in working with Howard Lee, I take it was part of it, too?
EVA CLAYTON:
Oh, sure, sure. And he was the one that made the offer. Yes, yes. That was a particular delight. Howard Lee in 1972 ran for Congress, and again in 1974. And in 1976 he ran for Lieutenant Governor. And both in '74 and in '76, I worked with his campaign. I also worked in '76 with Jim Hunt's campaign. My husband was the county-wide co-chair during that. So those relationships meant that at least my name was there and some opportunity for a contribution in the providing of services to the state of North Carolina. I thought that as a challenge, you know. I'm pleased that I did it.