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Kenan Stadium, Named for Wilmington Insurrectionist, Has Plaque Covered by UNC

by: Tristan Dufresne,

CHAPEL HILL — This month , UNC-Chapel Hill placed its logo and the words "Kenan Memorial Stadium" over part of its football stadium’s plaque, covering the dedication to William Rand Kenan Sr. because of his central role in the 1898 massacre of black Wilmington residents and the overthrow of its local government.

In October 2018, the university’s then-Chancellor Carol Folt announced , “After talking with the family, the University has decided to change the plaques to remove the honorific reference to William R. Kenan Sr., to focus instead on the donor who made the gift, William R. Kenan Jr., and to tell the full and complete history.”

The office of the current interim chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, acknowledged the announcement in a statement released to media on Thursday November 7. The office further stated, “The logo placed over a plaque last week is a temporary fix until new signage can be created.” No details on new signage were released.

William Rand Kenan Jr., an 1894 UNC graduate, donated much of his wealth, accumulated through years as chemist and industrialist, to the university throughout his life. In 1926, he funded the construction of the football stadium and field house with a $300,000 gift and construction was completed the next year.

UNC granted Kenan Jr.'s request that the stadium bear the names of his father, William Sr., and mother, Mary Hargrave Kenan.

Kenan Jr. passed away in 1965, and his descendants have continued in the legacy of philanthropy.

Kenan Sr. played a central role as a captain of the reactionary, racist paramilitary outfit that killed dozens, if not hundreds, in post-Reconstruction Wilmington. According to “The Story of the Wilmington Rebellion” by Harry Hayden (1936), he was in co-command of a wagon-mounted machine gun.

In 1898, white residents and Democratic Party members violently overthrew Wilmington’s Fusionist government, a political coalition consisting mainly of poor white Populist Party members and black Republicans. The local black-run newspaper, The Daily Record, was burned to the ground and its editors run out of town. Political officials were forced to resign at gunpoint. The city’s black middle class then became targets of extreme violence.

Sixty people were known to have been killed, but some historians believe the real number of dead could be as many as 300. Many black residents hid out for days in the surrounding countryside until the melee subsided.

Nomenclature surrounding the incident has evolved. The event was formerly known as the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, but has been more recently, and correctly, called a coup or massacre. A 1994 memorial plaque to The Daily Record’s editor, Alex Manly, calls the event a “race riot” (applying quotation marks to the term) and the North Carolina General Assembly used the same phrase in 2000 when creating commission to study the event. However, on November 8, a highway memorial marker was dedicated in Wilmington to the “Wilmington Coup.” Wikipedia’s entry, as of November 21 , is titled the “Wilmington insurrection of 1898."

Historian David Cecelski, who along with the Reverend Tim Tyson co-edited the book “Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy”, told the Sundial, “I grew up in Eastern North Carolina at a time when the leaders of the Wilmington violence and the white supremacy campaign were considered heroes.”

Cecelski said that while he thinks that perception has changed significantly over the years, “I think that some of the larger points still get missed, the most important being that [the coup] was a relatively small part of a much larger white supremacy campaign...which reached into all 100 counties and included a concerted effort of violence, political coercion and destruction of African-American leadership and property.”

Taking the Kenan name off the stadium entirely is not permitted after the Board of Trustees instated a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings, monuments, memorials and landscapes in 2015, in reaction to the successful movement to rename Saunders Hall, whose namesake, William L. Saunders, was a Ku Klux Klan leader. (That building is now titled Carolina Hall.)

The university’s plan to change namesakes to Kenan Jr. would also allow continued acknowledgment of the Kenan family's generous financial assistance, which a new name would not do.

The younger Kenan’s name already marks the Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Kenan Center, and also adorns multiple UNC endowed professorships. The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust provides grants to education, arts, basic human needs and other causes. In 2018’s fiscal year, the Trust claims to have funded grants totaling $28.855 million.

In a phone conversation with the Sundial, Anna Richards, president of the Carrboro–Chapel Hill chapter of the NAACP, said, “This movement has been largely student-led over the years, and in my mind this is just the continuation of a commitment the school made a long time ago about looking at how they dealt with the white supremacist legacy at the university.

Richards said, “There was a time when the true history was covered up... I think we need to come to grips with that if we want to move forward.”

The UNC student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, published an editorial about the covering of the plaque on November 10. The DTH Editorial Board criticized UNC's History Task Force for inaction and wrote, "We can’t erase our past — but what we can do is learn from it. Our history informs our present, and we need to be intentional about acknowledging who we were in order to change who we are. Centuries of institutional racism have resulted in profound and irrevocable harm to communities of color. But the University has failed to truly reckon with it, despite many half-hearted attempts to do so."

The DTH editorial continued, “So much of UNC’s legacy is thanks to the Black community, from the slaves who helped build this campus 229 years ago to the Black athletes who play for its beloved basketball team. The University owes the Black community so much more than a souped-up UNC logo slapped on top of the name of a man responsible for the massacre of at least 25 Black individuals.”

“I think if we were judging another country,” Cecelski said, “and we heard that the way they treat the atrocities of their past was to never have a process of reconciliation, never do any kind of reparation or restorative justice, that we continue to honor the enactors of the atrocity in monuments... I think we would judge them pretty harshly.”

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