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UNC Football: Kenan Stadium to get a historical update

Research into who the stadium was named for brought about a change.

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve attended Carolina, or even if you’ve visited the campus in Chapel Hill, you are very much aware of the name Kenan. There is the Kenan Residental Hall, the Kenan-Flagler Business School, The Kenan Science Library, and Kenan Music Building, among many others. The family and its charitable trust has donated millions upon millions of dollars to UNC, and as is the custom among universities, when you do that you get your name on a lot of things.

One of the buildings the Kenans got their name on was the football stadium our Tar Heels play in every fall. As time has gone on and the Kenans continued to help an untold number of students, the actual Kenan that the stadium was named after had gotten lost. However, with the recent debates around Carolina Hall (formerly named Saunders Hall) and the Silent Sam statue, attention turned to other monuments and buildings on campus that may have ties to slavery and Jim Crow. In mid-September, NBC Sports writer Craig Calcaterra published a deep-dive exposing that the stadium was named for William Rand Kenan Sr, not his son, William Kenan Junior, who actually earned the bulk of the Kenan fortune.

That turns out to be an important distinction. William Rand Kenan Jr provided the funds for the stadium to be built but, in return, wanted the stadium to be named after his father, hence the name Kenan Memorial Stadium. It turns out that William Sr has an ugly role in the history of North Carolina, as he was the leader of the 1898 Wilmington Insurrection: the only successful coup d’etat in United States history and an absolute massacre of the city’s black population. Kenan and his regiment forced the Republican administration of the city to resign, and thus helped cement the beginnings of Jim Crow in Wilmington and the rest of the state.

About two weeks after Calcaterra published his piece, the Daily Tar Heel highlighted his work and reached out to both University leadership and athletic department leadership for any comments on how, if at all, UNC would handle this revelation. At the time, no one provided much information besides the fact that the stadium had to keep its name 2031 due to the 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings on campus imposed after the renaming of what is now Carolina Hall in 2015.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Carol Folt issued a letter that provided an update on other issues and ended with the news that the school had been speaking with the Kenan family regarding the stadium’s name. The stadium now will be focused more on the Kenan who made the gift, William Rand Kenan Junior. On top of that, the plaque that memorializes his father will be removed, and a new plaque will be put in its place that will tell the full history of the naming, presumably including Senior’s role in the Wilmington insurrection.

For those wondering why this particular change was allowed to bypass the BOG’s moratorium, the only answer we can really give is that money talks, and the Kenan family is still alive, well, and donating generously to the University. Based on the fact that this decision was made with the approval of the Kenans, it’s reasonable to assume the family doesn’t share the feelings of the original Kenan patriarch. It’s also notable that Kenan Stadium isn’t a Confederate monument, meaning that it isn’t subject to state law about alterations to such monuments. This allowed UNC to take action on its own without having to consult the legislature.

So, next weekend, when Carolina plays against Virginia Tech in primetime, the cloud of William Rand Kenan Senior won’t be hanging over the stadium. The cloud of failure around this season and the uncertainty of the team’s future? That’s a wholly different matter.

Editor’s Note: I feel that it is remiss to talk about the name Kenan and UNC without mentioning Randall Kenan, current Associate Professor in UNC’s Department of English and Creative Writing and a former graduate of the University. Professor Kenan is unrelated to the family that gave its name to so many buildings on campus, but he is one of the country’s foremost writers, particularly when it comes to literature about black and gay communities and issues. His name may cause him to be overshadowed by the University’s biggest benefactors, but he, too, is a Kenan with whom UNC is much better off. -Akil G.