On Saturday the University of North Carolina football team will host the Pitt Panthers in their home opener, kicking off the Tar Heels’ 92nd season in Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill. Almost none of the 40,000+ fans who will show up have any idea who the stadium is named after, and even those who think they do probably have it wrong.
They’ve likely heard the name Kenan, as it is an extraordinarily prominent name in and around UNC. One of the university’s founders was a Kenan. The business school is named after a Kenan as is a charitable trust that endows dozens of professorships and distributes numerous grants benefitting literacy, the arts, science, technology, and secondary school education. A Kenan is currently on the Board of Trustees for the UNC School of the Arts.
Almost all things Kenan at UNC are named after chemist, industrialist and developer William Rand Kenan Jr., an 1894 UNC graduate who, after teaming up with his brother-in-law, the oil man Henry Flagler, built railroads and made a fortune developing Miami and the Florida coast. When he died in 1965 he bequeathed most of his $95 million fortune to his alma mater. Today the trust that bears his name is worth over $300 million.
The football stadium is not named after William Rand Kenan Jr., however. Rather, at his request, and following a generous donation, it was named after his parents, William Rand Kenan Sr. and Mary Hargrave Kenan. It is they, according to a plaque affixed to a freestanding monument inside the stadium, who Kenan Memorial Stadium is intended to memorialize and continues to memorialize to this day.
Most fans entering Kenan Stadium probably don’t pay much attention to the plaque and, as a result, don’t know the first thing about William Rand Kenan Sr. Even if they did read it, though, they would not learn the most notable thing about him.
William Rand Kenan Sr. was the commander of a white supremacist paramilitary force which massacred scores of black residents of Wilmington, North Carolina on a single, bloody day in 1898.
For nearly a century the events which took place in Wilmington on November 10, 1898 were known as “The Wilmington Race Riot.” That very name, however, was a lie intended to obscure what really happened.
Long portrayed as a violent uprising of black instigators put down by heroic and noble white citizens fighting for law and order, it was, in fact, a massacre. It was simultaneously a coup d’etat in which a white militia, led by a former Confederate officer and a white supremacist named Alfred Moore Waddell, killed black residents in the streets and in their homes, chased even more out of town, burned black-owned businesses to the ground and overthrew the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies in a coalition born of the briefly-ascendent Fusion Movement, which had just been legitimately elected.
History has tended to portray the massacre as spontaneous. It was anything but. It was preceded by months of racial and political tensions, stoked by red shirt-wearing white supremacist Democrats who were aggrieved that in Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city, a Fusion government sought to protect the gains freed blacks had earned during Reconstruction. On election day in 1898 the red shirts attempted to steal ballots and drive black voters away from polling places. Those efforts failed and the black-Republican coalition held power.
That night a group of over 450 white men met at the courthouse and signed a so-called “White Declaration of Independence” which specifically called for the repeal of black voting rights and the banishment of black political and business leaders from the town. The following morning signatories to the Declaration burned the offices of the Wilmington Daily Record, — the town’s black-owned newspaper — to the ground and threatened its publisher with lynching. The massacre, planned out in advance and undertaken with deliberation, had begun.
History has likewise portrayed the violence in Wilmington that day as being carried out by an unruly mob. This is also a lie. The massacre was an organized paramilitary action in which the Wilmington Light Infantry, a state militia unit which had just returned from duty in the Spanish–American War, spread out over the city, taking it over street by street, killing black citizens in the process.
The most intimidating — and the most deadly — component of the Wilmington Light Infantry was was its machine gun squad, which commanded a rapid-firing Colt gun mounted on a horse-drawn wagon. The gun, capable of firing 420 .23 caliber rounds a minute, was not property of the United States Army or the state militia. Rather, it was purchased by local businessmen who, according to contemporary accounts, believed that the gun would “intimidate into quietude” those who saw the weapon and “overawe Negroes.” The machine gun squad was likewise itself not a military force. It was led by a Civil War veteran and local businessmen named William Rand Kenan Sr., with other local business owners under his command.
The bloodshed began when foot soldiers shot and killed blacks who had gathered on the street following the burning of the Daily Record’s offices. The massacre grew much deadlier when Kenan’s machine gun wagon crossed the Fourth Street Bridge into the predominantly black part of Wilmington known as Brooklyn. Its first fusillade came in response to what witnesses claimed to be sniper fire, though no sniper was ever found. According to eye-witnesses, the gun’s volley killed 25 blacks in a matter of seconds. Later, as Kenan’s machine gun squad proceeded past an area known as Manhattan Park, it was witnessed firing into a house where three black residents were killed. The gun was later used to threaten black churches into opening their doors to be searched for weapons whites believed blacks to be stockpiling and individuals white leaders deemed to be dangerous or subversive. No weapons were found but many black residents were marched out of hiding. Some were thrown in jail. Some were never seen again.
As the morning wore on, Kenan’s forces and other units of the Wilmington Light Infantry conducted house-to-house searches, intimidating residences into compliance, arresting blacks by the dozens and shooting those who gave even the slightest hint that they might resist. Some blacks who were specifically identified as influential in the community were hunted down and killed. As shots rang out, hundreds of black men, women and children fled town, some permanently, some to take shelter in nearby cemeteries and swamps until the violence subsided. By sundown, buildings in Wilmington’s black neighborhoods were pockmarked with bullet holes and anywhere from 60 to as many as 300 blacks had been killed. The exact number is lost to history due to white leaders’ hasty burial of bodies in mass graves and due to black witnesses either having fled town or having been intimidated into silence.
The next morning white leaders, with the backing of the Wilmington Light Infantry, forced the Republican Mayor, the board of aldermen, and the police chief to resign at gunpoint after which they and black leaders which had not been killed or who had not fled were marched to the train station and forced to leave the state under armed guard. That same day Alfred Moore Waddell — the white supremacist leader who orchestrated the events which led to the massacre — was named mayor, an office he would hold until 1905. The coup d’etat completed.
Within a year of the massacre the North Carolina legislature — determined to prevent blacks from holding political power like they did for a time in Wilmington — passed a new constitution which made it close to impossible for blacks to register to vote and imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively disfranchised black voters completely. Nearly every other southern state would model laws on these North Carolina statutes. The “Solid South” of the Jim Crow era was secured and would remain in place, officially, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Unofficially, efforts to discourage blacks from voting continue to this day.
William Rand Kenan Sr. was hailed as a hero for his role in the massacre. The white-owned Wilmington Messenger newspaper lauded the Wilmington Light Infantry and Kenan personally, writing “[i]n the Revolutionary War, in the Civil War and in this race war, a Kenan was the bravest of the brave.” A few weeks after the massacre it was reported that Kenan held a massive barbecue for all of those who participated, after which the assembled men gave Kenan a vote of thanks for his service in the massacre. In February 1903 Kenan was named to the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees. He died two months later.
For the next several decades the Wilmington Massacre was invariably branded a “riot,” “insurrection,” “rebellion,” “revolution,” or “conflict,” necessitated by an unlawful uprising of black aggressors, with the violence of it all dramatically downplayed, distorted or cast as unavoidable. A typical example of this can be seen in Incidents by the Way, the 1958 memoir of William Rand Kenan Jr., the UNC benefactor, who wrote of his father’s actions thusly:
“As a small boy I was much impressed with the following: There was a riot of colored men in Wilmington and my father organized a company of men with all kinds of rifles together with a riot gun on a wagon and they cleaned up the riot very quickly, although they were compelled to kill several persons. My father rode the wagon and directed the operation.”
William Rand Kenan Jr. was, in fact, 26 years-old at the time and was working as a chemist for Union Carbide. He was almost certainly well-aware of the circumstances of the massacre and likely distorted the timeline of it, casting himself, erroneously, as a “small boy,” in order to distance himself and his family from its horrors as time passed.
It is highly unlikely that any of the thousands of football fans who come to Kenan Stadium each fall or any of the dozens of young men who play for the Tar Heels — a great many of whom are black — are aware of the infamy of the stadium’s namesake. Indeed, even those most familiar with the university and its connection to the Kenans know little if anything about it.
“The Kenans are an enormously generous family of benefactors to the University of North Carolina. Everybody knows that,” UNC history professor Harry Watson told me when I interviewed him recently. “The average undergraduate would say ‘oh, yeah, the Kenans, they’re a pretty important family who have given us a lot of money’ but the biographical details are not likely well known as even that,” Watson said. “Kenan Sr.’s role in the violence of 1898 is not widely known at all.”
“There are probably a couple of people on campus who know,” said UNC history Professor William Sturkey, who specializes in the history of Jim Crow and the New South. “I think a lot of people would be quite shocked. It’s just something that’s been buried and forgotten.”
It’s not the first thing that has been buried and forgotten about the history of the Kenans.
A plaque on Kenan Memorial Stadium refers to the Kenan family’s wealth as coming from “chemicals, power, railroads and hotels.” That is true so far as William Rand Kenan Jr.’s adult fortune was concerned, but the Kenans were already wealthy thanks to plantation slavery. Indeed, according to an 1850 slave census, the Kenan family owned 49 people, including 23 people aged 10 or under. This would be the household in which William Rand Kenan Sr., who manned the gun in Wilmington and for whom the stadium was named, was raised.
Last February Sturkey, a member of the school’s Faculty Athletics Committee, introduced a motion recommending that the athletic department take steps to place a new plaque on the stadium to note the family’s slaveholding past. His intention was not to cast the Kenans in a bad light — he did not know about Kenan Sr.’s role in Wilmington at the time — nor was it his intention, as so many people are accused of doing when such matters arise, to “erase history.” To the contrary, Sturkey said, it was the history of the slaves owned by the Kenans that was erased. As a historian, Sturkey said, he just wanted the full story to be told.
“[Slaves’] presence and their lives were omitted. And not just omitted, but intentionally omitted.” Sturkey said. He said that, via his motion, he was suggesting that the Faculty Athletics Committee ask the athletic department to “take steps to recognize the existence of these people whose lives were so crucial to compiling the wealth which built the university . . . it was about simply telling the truth and not misleading people.”
Sturkey’s motion was unanimously passed but it has not been acted upon and the athletic department has given no reason why it has not done so. Not that the athletic department would be the first department which has chosen to ignore the slaveholding history of the Kenans. Over at the Kenan-Flagler Business school website there there appears a timeline of the Kenan family’s history. It conspicuously jumps from 1793 to the 1880s, with no mention whatsoever of what the Kenan family was doing, and how it was making its money, during the intervening years.
“Kenan is a name that’s all over our campus, but in terms of how we’ve approached history, we’ve let the greatest benefactors tell their own history,” Sturkey said. “But by doing that, of course, we’ve allowed them to have the complete say in what that history is.”
Based on recent events at UNC, it would appear that, if the Kenans and the university continue to insist upon complete say in how history is told, they will do so at their peril.
Like so many other places in the south, North Carolina is no stranger to the ongoing controversy surrounding memorials and monuments of the Confederate and Jim Crow eras. It is unique, however, in not only its opposition to doing much if anything about them, but in its affirmative protection of such monuments.
For 105 years, a statue called “Silent Sam” sat on a prominent quad on UNC’s campus, facing the main street which passes the university. While ostensibly intended to commemorate the Civil War and its fallen soldiers, Silent Sam, like so many other Confederate monuments erected in the late 19th and early 20th century, was in fact a monument to the Jim Crow Era. If there was any doubt of this, one need only read the speech given by industrialist, philanthropist, and white supremacist Julian Carr at Silent Sam’s dedication ceremony in 1913.
Carr, who advocated for taking voting rights away from blacks and who referred to the Wilmington Massacre as “a grand and glorious event” after it occurred, did not mince words on the afternoon Silent Sam was dedicated. He talked openly, and with no small amount of pride, about how Confederate soldiers saved “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” adding, “to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” He added that, in the days after the end of the Civil War he had, on the very spot where the statue now stood, “horse-whipped” a “negro wench” for speaking disrespectfully to a white woman. Given how it was spoken of at its very dedication, there is no question that the statue was not intended to memorialize fallen soldiers but, instead, to stand as a monument to white supremacy.
Silent Sam had been a source of controversy for years, but in the wake of 2017’s Unite the Right march in Charlottesville which, among other things, cast more light on Confederate and Jim Crow-era monuments, protests had increased significantly. The university listened to protesters’ arguments but claimed it could do nothing about Silent Sam because its hands were legally tied.
And, to a very large degree, they were. By both a university bylaw adopted in 2015 and by a state law passed in 2015 which prohibit the renaming or buildings and removal or relocation of monuments under all but the most narrow of circumstances. Given the timing of the passage of these laws and the events which inspired their adoption, they were, without question, aimed at heading off protests of monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow before they began. Absent those laws, the sign makers would be pretty busy: UNC has no fewer than 30 buildings named after figures tied to white supremacy.
Not that those laws are the only thing motivating UNC officials and donors. Some seem quite eager to protect monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow on their own terms.
Last month a series of emails were leaked and published in which one member of the UNC Board of Trustees called for cameras with night vision to be installed around Silent Sam in order to protect it and called protesters “criminals” and “entitled wimps” who should be arrested as a deterrence measure. In another email the university’s Vice Chancellor referred to university leadership’s interest in “preserving a piece of our history,” and defending the statue from “outside parties” who may protest it. Wealthy donors threatened to withhold six-figure contributions to UNC if Silent Sam was removed, with one calling protestors “spoiled intellectuals.” Whether it was because of that direct pressure and the interests of UNC officials in protecting the statue, or whether it was because university bylaws and the state law prevented them from taking action, in early August the UNC Board of Governors announced it had no plans to remove Silent Sam.
If UNC officials thought that would be the end of the matter, they were sorely mistaken. In the wake of the decision to take no action, protests intensified. On the evening of August 20 — the night before the fall semester began — hundreds of protesters gathered around the statue, threw ropes around it and, in less than ten seconds, brought Silent Sam crashing to the ground. What was left of Silent Sam was taken to a university warehouse in the back of a dump truck. His fate is as of yet unknown, but at the moment the University seems intent on re-erecting the Jim Crow relic.
The first choice would be to acknowledge the role of William Rand Kenan Sr. in the Wilmington Massacre and to find a way, via additional plaques or interpretive materials, to tell the full history of that dark chapter of the Kenan family. In so doing it might, as Professor Sturkey suggested, begin to recognize the totality of the history upon which UNC was built and begin to remember those who have been intentionally erased from that history. Given the Silent Sam pushback and based on how even a modest motion to amend the misleading historical plaque about the Kenan family at the stadium was already ignored, it seems unlikely that the university would do such a thing.
Which would leave the only alternative: to do nothing. To continue to bury the history of its stadium’s namesake and his role in one of the darkest atrocities of the Jim Crow era, thereby allowing the largest and most prominent building on campus to memorialize a man who should, by all rights, stand in infamy.
Will the university do nothing? Better yet, will the people who toppled Silent Sam and those who supported them stand idly by if it does?
Special thanks to LeRae Umfleet, author of A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot (2009), published by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, which served as an important source for this article