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UNC to change which Kenan is honored on Kenan Stadium

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Despite high temperatures, UNC-Chapel Hill's spring 2018 commencement ceremony, held on Mother's Day, was energetic and celebratory.

UNC-Chapel Hill will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898.

The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son.

“I am pleased to report that 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,” UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said in a letter to students and faculty on Wednesday evening. “The History Task Force will undertake this project in the coming weeks.“

The younger Kenan is the well-known namesake of many things UNC. He was a chemist and industrialist who made a fortune developing the coast of Florida with Henry Flagler. The Kenan-Flagler Business School carries his name, as do professorships and the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, a philanthropy that has poured millions into education and the arts.

But his donation that built the football stadium was in memory of his parents, William Rand Kenan Sr. and Mary Hargrave Kenan.

The story of Kenan Sr.’s involvement in the 1898 massacre has been in the news lately, since the controversy over the toppled Silent Sam Confederate monument on UNC’s campus.

It was featured in a piece published last month by NBC sports reporter Craig Calcaterra, who wrote that the elder Kenan 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.”

Calcaterra pointed out that generations of football fans unknowingly flocked to a stadium named for a man who led a squad with a machine gun mounted on a wagon that killed blacks in the streets. The violence happened as white supremacists overthrew the local government coalition that had been formed by blacks and white Republicans.

Though the violence has long been characterized as a spontaneous race riot, it was really the end result of a lengthy white supremacist campaign stoked by prominent Democrats in North Carolina, including Josephus Daniels, former publisher of The News & Observer. The story was detailed in a lengthy 2006 report in The N&O by Duke University scholar Tim Tyson.

The controversy over Kenan Stadium had bubbled up earlier this year.

UNC’s Faculty Athletics Committee recommended in February that the university’s athletic department take steps “to put another plaque on Kenan Stadium to recognize the family wealth origins of the Kenan Family based on plantation-based slavery and recognize and acknowledge those people who helped build that wealth,” according to minutes of the committee’s meeting. William Sturkey, a UNC historian, had suggested the change.

UNC’s History Task Force has been at work on a large effort to contextualize the university’s past and its ties to slavery and Jim Crow through research, new signs and interactive exhibits. The initiative is to include changes around McCorkle Place, where Silent Sam had stood for more than a century before protesters pulled the statue down Aug. 20.

Folt and the Board of Trustees have until Nov. 15 to come up with a plan for the statue’s preservation and future location.

In her message to the campus Wednesday, Folt wrote that confronting the university’s full history is hard.

“Yet in reckoning with our past, we must not overlook the good works of people living in the present,” she wrote. “As a university founded in 1789, many families from those times are represented across our landscape, and many of their descendants live in North Carolina, study or work on our campus, and make outstanding contributions to the welfare of our University, state and nation.”

“There may be no better example of this than the Kenan family,” she added.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill
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