Craig Calcaterra, NBC reporter, published an article last week which revealed for many Kenan Sr.’s involvement in these horrific events. Calcaterra wrote the events were long referred to as “The Wilmington Race Riot,” to falsely portray the day as a violent uprising of Black rioters stopped by white citizens. The massacre was led by a former Confederate officer named Alfred Waddell.
In her book, “A Day of Blood: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot,” LeRae Umfleet wrote the machine gun squad led by William Rand Kenan Sr. was capable of firing 420 bullets per minute. Eyewitnesses reported the unit killed 25 Black people within seconds at the intersection of Sixth and Brunswick streets. As with the entire massacre, the exact number of people murdered by Kenan is unknown due to the white leaders getting rid of the bodies and Black witnesses fleeing town.
Harry Watson, a UNC history professor, said Kenan later wrote proudly about his involvement in the massacre in a memoir, but the connection between Kenan and the massacre didn’t catch on — and most people still don't know the story.
"(The massacre) is not taught in schools, it was basically erased from the North Carolina history textbooks or extremely minimized,” Watson said.
Glenda Gilmore, history professor at Yale University, covered the massacre in her book, “Gender and Jim Crow,” but said she was unaware of Kenan’s involvement in the massacre until reading Calcaterra’s article.
“I don’t think it’s something UNC should really want to promote — it’s shameful, and it’s horrifying that now we know it because it changes the whole meaning of the name of the stadium,” Gilmore said. “Most of the people that have buildings named for them at Chapel Hill either owned slaves or became leaders in the state because they were white supremacists at the turn of the twentieth century, but this is the man that pulled the trigger on the machine gun.”
History Ph.D. student Lindsay Ayling, who found out about Kenan’s involvement by reading Calcaterra’s article, said the current stadium markers distort the truth of how the Kenans became powerful.
“It fits in with the culture of celebrating racism that we see written into many building names on UNC campus,” Ayling said. “The people that say anti-racist activists are trying to rewrite history, actually it’s just the opposite; we’re trying to acknowledge historical truth that they’ve been covering up by celebrating racists and racial violence.”
Christopher Everett, director of the documentary “Wilmington On Fire,” knew about Kenan’s involvement in the massacre from a photograph he found during his research in which Kenan was pictured on the wagon that carried the machine gun. Everett said Kenan's involvement has been a topic during question-and-answer sessions after documentary viewings.
“A lot of people are starting to do their own research and realizing that a lot of these buildings and stuff like that are named after people who have done bad things,” he said. “But we’re also seeing a lot of people saying, 'You know what? We need to remove the names off of some of these places.'"
Everett said the lack of information in the past has kept many people from knowing about the massacre and suggested UNC host a conference that could show documentaries like “Wilmington On Fire” to start discussions about the school’s full history.
“It’s going to take a grassroots effort to really share this history and this knowledge — the mainstream media isn’t going to cover it, so it’s up to us, the people, to really spread this around,” he said.
Jay Smith, UNC history professor, agreed the University needs to address its history to move forward with a clean conscious and clear path.
“We at UNC-Chapel Hill have yet to come to terms with the fact that the modern University of North Carolina is rooted, in part, in the ideology of white supremacy,” Smith said. “Failing to confront troubling, painful facts of your institutional history can lead to ugly explosions down the line.”
After a UNC Media Relations request to receive media inquiries 36 hours in advance, The Daily Tar Heel asked for University comment 48 hours before deadline. On Thursday afternoon, Director of UNC Media Relations Joanne Peters Denny responded to the request and asked the DTH to contact the Faculty Athletics Committee for comment.
"The moratorium does not lift until 2031, so we cannot speculate on that," Peters Denny said in an email regarding discussion about a name change for the stadium.
The athletics committee did not reply to the request at the time. Steve Kirschner, senior associate athletic director for Communications, also referred the DTH to a University response.
Last February, the Faculty Athletics Committee passed a motion proposed by committee member William Sturkey recommending the UNC Athletic Department place a new plaque on Kenan Memorial Stadium to recognize slavery as the origins of the Kenan family’s wealth. No changes have been made to the plaque yet.
Gilmore said she hopes the knowledge of Kenan’s involvement in the massacre will help UNC leaders to “strengthen their spines” in comparison with how they’ve handled Silent Sam.
“Honestly, it just sickens me that after all the work of historical recovery trying to determine what happened in 1898, that William Rand Kenan triumphs every weekend at the stadium,” she said. “After all the work we’ve done, his name is the name that is associated with victory at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill.”