OPINION: The hidden racist history of the Kenan House

Sophia Culler, Staff Writer

Students are not expected to know the story behind every building owned by UNCW, but they should know the origins of the home where their Chancellor resides. The Chancellor’s home, also known as the Kenan House, has a history that is especially vital to learn during Black History Month. For the students and faculty who don’t know it, it’s time to go to school.

Sarah Kenan was the first Kenan to own this home, and her family’s history cannot be ignored. After all, the house is named the Kenan House, not just the Sarah Kenan House. Sarah Kenan came from a prominent, wealthy family.

“[The Kenans] were major landowners and major slaveholders in the eastern part of [North Carolina],” said UNC history professor William Sturkey in an interview for WBUR News Station. Sarah Kenan’s family also contributed financially to the founding of many universities in North Carolina, making “Kenan” an especially prominent name in North Carolina.

While there is plenty of information available on the Kenans, going several generations back, one only has to go as far back as Sarah’s father, William Rand Kenan Sr., to find relevant information. Wilmington is a town with a lot of history. According to Craig Calcaterra, Wilmington was the location of “the only successful [coup d’etat] to ever take place on American soil”: the Wilmington Massacre.

It could be argued that the events that would ultimately lead to the massacre first unfolded in 1870 when Black men were given the right to vote in the United States. The ratification of the 15th Amendment led to Black men taking many positions of political power in the Wilmington community. This event led to an extremely violent, angry response from White supremacists, and particularly those in the Democratic Party.

Kenan Sr. and other white supremacist rioters are photographed on the machine gun wagon that he used during the Wilmington Massacre. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

White supremacists, who were led by William Rand Kenan Sr., sought out Black people and murdered them in the streets. They even burned down the Black run newspaper, The Daily Record, and destroyed many businesses and homes. In an interview by Craig Calcaterra with UNC history professor Harry Watson, Kenan Sr. was the man who “was given the responsibility of commanding the machine-gun wagon” that was used to murder Black people during the Wilmington Massacre. In my opinion, by being named the “Kenan House,” this campus building willfully honors this murderer and traitor’s legacy.

As a student who walks around campus to get to my classes, I get to meet other students and hear from them. It is impossible to ignore the demographic disparity. Black students only make up approximately 5.6% of the UNCW student population. This is unacceptable, but not surprising after considering the actions of the university and its leaders.

I think that Black students will feel more comfortable on campus if their Chancellor stops living in the Kenan House. I propose that instead, this building will be turned into a museum that focuses on teaching about the race riots, and particularly the Wilmington Massacre. This house should not be glorified, but rather, should be a solemn reminder of the past, and a warning of what can happen if history is ignored. To paraphrase from Spanish philosopher George Santayana, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

“Kenan House is the Historic Kenan House, home of UNCW’s chancellor, is a 7,500-square-foot Neoclassical Revival dwelling constructed in 1911 and deeded to the university by the Kenan family in 1968. It stands on Market Street beside the Wise Alumni House.” (UNCW)

This is the end of Black History Month, but that doesn’t mean we should just stop educating ourselves on Black history. Isn’t it time that this evil part of Wilmington’s past is recognized for the horror that it was? The Chancellor of this university living in a home that reflects such evil sends the wrong message to the students. The Chancellor and the Board of Trustees cannot be unaware of the house’s history without conveying incompetency and ignorance. The message they are sending by allowing the most powerful spokesperson for UNCW to live in a house with such a harmful history is a poor reflection on this institution.

Dr. Aswani Volety is the current chancellor. He lives in the Kenan House and must know of its history. Do you really want a chancellor that lives in a place like that? Is this not an endorsement of this coup d’etat, the Wilmington Massacre? I have heard no protest from Dr. Volety regarding his current home. I have heard no announcement from Dr. Volety condemning its history. This house is no better than the statue known as Silent Sam.

The university must right these wrongs against minority students, staff and faculty. Every student should stand with the marginalized communities at UNCW and recognize that Chancellor Volety and the Board of Trustees, by purposefully allowing the endorsement of these crimes or engaging in incompetent ignorance, are not the leaders that we need. I will finish this article with one of my favorite quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The time is always right to do what is right.”