Published Date

January 1, 2000

Resource Type

For Departments, For the Classroom, Program of Study

This resource was developed as part of the Migration and the American South project.

Rep. Eva Clayton

Congresswoman Eva Clayton is a native of Savannah, Georgia. She attended Johnson C. Smith University and North Carolina Central University. She came to Warren County, North Carolina in the mid 1960s with her husband who moved there to practice law. She became active in civil rights issues, economic development, and politics. In the 1970s she joined Floyd McKissick, a noted civil rights activist, in the administration of the Soul City project in Warren County. The project was a federally funded effort to build a “model town” that would attract business and industry to the area. Warren was particularly hard hit by out-migration and poverty, and the model town program was designed to assist areas suffering from these problems. In 1992 she was elected to Congress, and holds the honor of being the first African American woman to be elected to Congress from North Carolina. She is currently serving her third term as the representative of the first district.

This interview is an excerpt of a longer interview conducted with Congresswoman Clayton on July 18 1989 by Kathryn Nasstrom for the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It focuses on Clayton and McKissick’s efforts to get the Soul City project up and running and the ultimate failure of that project (For pictures of Soul City today, click here). The complete interview is on deposit at the Southern Historical Collection in the Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This excerpt is used with the permission of the Southern Historical Collection.

Kathryn Nasstrom=KN
Eva M. Clayton=

EMC: Yeah, well, my being in Congress, is a result of my activism in voting registration. I had four, maybe three or four years, prior to that, {when} my husband and I had helped voter registration workshops throughout the country. And my husband had run.

KN: Oh, I wasn’t aware of that. When did he run?

EMC: He ran for the state house in 1964, probably ’65, because you don’t run even years. So it was probably ’65 and ’67, or either ’63 or ’65, but he had run twice. In fact the first time he ran he was able to call for a runoff. He wasn’t a leading candidate, but out of that effort and that participation, I was encouraged to run for Congress. Now I didn’t expect to win, but I obviously you run to win. In fact I did considerably better than I ever thought I would have, and probably if I knew all that I know now I probably wouldn’t have run. [Laughter] I was really interested in voter registration and they really needed someone, a candidate, to focus that, to get people excited, why wouldn’t you take the next step, if you were really committed to voter registration? I learned an awful lot in that process. I think I learned how important symbols were to people. Voter registration in Warren County increased by 25 percent. Voter registration in the second district increased by some 12 percent. It was the highest significant registration increase they’ve ever had in either the county or the district, even since then. But that still wasn’t sufficient enough to get blacks at a local level, or blacks substantially at a regional level. I wasn’t alone in running. I indicated there was Reginald Hawkins running for governor, there were persons running for county commissioners in our county and other surrounding counties, [also] school boards. So there was an emerging recognition that political participation was the way if you’re going to have equality, that you had to have people in positions to make the decision. Now some of that was successful, some of it wasn’t, but I think there was a commitment by the leadership and people did take the risk–yes, I’ll be a candidate. Even when you knew there was a possibility that you wouldn’t be. I think that was there.

There was, in places like Warren Count prior to my running and prior to my coming to the county, just a great outward migration for very good reasons. There’s a book called Chickenbone Special. It was about the trek from the South to the North for people to find jobs and a better way of life. The event of our running, or other people running, the community found just an outpouring of people expressing hope that one day their communities would be the kind of community where they could come back home. Now, all that hasn’t materialized, but the sense of pride that something happened somewhere. So I think, those were some of the expectations and the feeling that were going on during that time. After the 1968 involvement, I indicated earlier that I had to learn a lot and I had gotten involved. My involvement, my desire to want to be a missionary, is continued not in terms of being a missionary, but my involvement in church. I received substantial support both from several interdenominational [groups], as well as some foundations. Groups said they’d help in voter registration. There were sources out there available, there was a need, and we organized something called Eastern North Carolina Development Corporation. I think it’s called, EDC, yeah, EDC, Economic Development Corporation, Eastern North Carolina Development Corporation. Out of that we established day cares throughout eastern North Carolina, and some of those day cares are still there. In fact, there’s an Eastern North Carolina Day Care Association headed by Alice Ballance and one done in Bertie County and Ahoskie, Battleboro, which grew out of that process, which foundations had given. That was the social end of that. It was harder to get a handle on the economics of it, but that’s truly where it is. Politics is the road to improve the economics. That has not happened in the main, but why participate in politics if you’re not trying to improve the economic and livability of the people who are there? Surely there needed to be efforts, and there still need to be efforts in working with economic development in that area. I think that’s sufficient response to that question.

KN: 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?

EMC: That’s correct. However, there was a time when the Soul City Foundation, because it was non-profit, could quality for funds to do some building. The building that’s still there was called the Soul City Company. The foundation received funds, built that [is] 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.

KN: 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?

EMC: Yes.

KN: Okay. What about the period from ’68 to ’73?

EMC: 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 [name] 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.

KN: And what brought you to that position, what attracted you about working for Soul City?

EMC: 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, and 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 allows 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.

KN: Yes, [laughter]

EMC: 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


EMC: ….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 term 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 county and it will become even a greater economic advantage to our county.

KN: By that you mean what has remained behind, even though the city never was built on that land?

EMC: 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 benefited, Henderson’s benefited, and Warren County’s benefited, far more than Soul City itself benefited. 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 Owen Illinois. Nikrecho, I can never think of its new name, it was so quiet last year, its name is Nikrecho, I think. Owen Illinois moved there knowing it had water, it had streets, and it was an industrial base. There is evidence it is now serving as an economic incentive to our county.