The Truth Behind UNC Football's Dark Confederate Past - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Truth Behind UNC Football's Dark Confederate Past

CHAPEL HILL, NC - AUGUST 22: Demonstrators rally for the removal of a Confederate statue coined Silent Sam on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill North Carolina.
SourceSara D. Davis/Getty

The Truth Behind UNC Football's Dark Confederate Past

By Rachel Louise Martin


Because UNC’s football heritage is linked to white supremacy.

By Rachel Louise Martin

The gun looks puny compared to today’s mounted weaponry. But the 10 men of the Wilmington Light Infantry posed around it with jaunty pride. Without it, they would have been a makeshift contingent of civilians manning an ad hoc paramilitary unit. Even their gun wagon was repurposed, a dray from the Wilmington Transfer Company. This rapid-fire Colt 6mm machine gun was their legitimacy, their one piece of true hardware.

Sitting beside the weapon was unit captain William Rand “Buck” Kenan. As scion of one of North Carolina’s founding families, a decorated Confederate soldier and a crack shot, he had earned his place. It was Nov. 10, 1898, and the Wilmington Light Infantry was patrolling the streets of their city, hunting their African-American neighbors. 

Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina, and more than half of its residents were Black. There were Black doctors, lawyers, firemen and policemen, and three of the 10 aldermen were Black. Literacy rates were higher among Black men than white men at the time.

We have waited 250 years for liberty, and this is what it is when it comes.

A survivor

Back then, the Republican Party was still the party of Lincoln. Wilmington’s Black voters ensured that the party controlled city politics, and an alliance with the Populist Party cemented Republicans’ hold on most state-held offices. Many white leaders, however, were Democrats who bragged about being “unreconstructed rebels.” In 1898, white men decided to “establish ‘white supremacy’” across the Tar Heel State. “We will not live under these intolerable conditions,” one politician pronounced a few days before the election. “We intend to change it, if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” White newspaper editors ran racist cartoons on front pages. “The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,” one example, showed a winged Black man plucking innocent white citizens up with his claws as he stomps on a ballot box. “Front-page images seem commonplace today, but in 1898 it was a newish print technology,” says Hilary N. Green, a history professor at the University of Alabama.


On November 8, the day of the election, Red Shirt Brigades — white supremacist gangs named for their chosen attire — monitored the polls, armed with shotguns. Poll workers dumped Republican ballots, and one Democrat voted 19 times, securing a Democratic win. But that wasn’t enough for Wilmington’s white leaders: Nine of them met in secret, and the next night they read their Declaration of White Independence to a white supremacist mob before ordering 25 local Black leaders to come to them. They told the Black men they had the night to decide: Accept the resolutions or face the consequences. 

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Wilmington erupted into violence in 1898.

Source Creative Commons

The African-American men acquiesced, but their response did not reach the white men in time. On the morning of November 10, Wilmington’s white men, cheered on by white ladies, destroyed the Black newspaper, and the instigators used the violence to mask a coup d’etat: They forced the city government to resign, and the man who had threatened to clog the river with bodies was named mayor.

White Wilmington then turned on Black residents, and the Wilmington Light Infantry led the campaign. Armed guards marched Black leaders to the train station, banishing them. One witness reported seeing a man made to run the gauntlet down a main street, only to be peppered by bullets, according to Quintard Taylor’s From Timbuktu to Katrina: Sources in African-American History. “They gathered around colored homes, firing like great sportsmen firing at rabbits in an open field,” writes the Rev. J. Allen Kirk in A Statement of Facts Concerning the Bloody Riot in Wilmington, NC, of Interest to Every Citizen of the United States. “We have waited 250 years for liberty, and this is what it is when it comes,” one survivor said. “Occurring only two years after the Supreme Court had sanctioned ‘separate but equal’ segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, the riot marked the embrace of virulent Jim Crow racism, not merely in Wilmington, but across the United States,” writes historian Timothy B. Tyson in The Ghosts of 1898. 

Officially, 25 African-Americans died, but the true tally is believed to have been much higher. Notably, no white residents were killed. Buck Kenan later claimed he never fired the machine gun, but his obituary would praise his “efficient service” during “the race troubles.” Whenever the Wilmington Light Infantry gathered, they displayed what one 1900 newspaper writer called “the Buck Kenan rapid-fire gun which figured so conspicuously in the stirring epoch of Wilmington’s white supremacy crusade.” 

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CHAPEL HILL, NC – AUGUST 22: Demonstrators rally for the removal of a Confederate statue, coined Silent Sam, on the campus of the University of Chapel Hill on August 22, 2017 in Chapel Hill North Carolina. The city mayor had asked the university to take the channels to remove the statue.

Source Sara D. Davis/Getty

Kenan was only a moderately successful businessman. But his children were a different story. While a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Buck’s son, William Kenan Jr., discovered calcium carbide, a key component of acetylene, and he helped found Union Carbide. His sister married Henry Morrison Flagler, a partner in Standard Oil and an early Florida real estate developer. Through these two fortunes, the Kenan descendants built UNC’s campus into what it is today. In 1927, William Kenan Jr. donated the money for UNC’s football stadium, naming it after his parents. 

Protesters at UNC have been fighting to remove commemorative markers honoring white supremacy; activists have focused on Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier — erected on the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation — guarding the school’s historic quad. But Sam is just one of the ways white supremacy has been woven into the university’s fabric. “If 1898 has saddled us with its legacy, it also suggests how we might overcome it,” Tyson writes. “Its central lesson is this: Human beings make history.” 

“We must confront history, including our difficult past, in order to bring about a different future,” says Green. “If the amnesia continues, any true reconciliation is impossible.”

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