UNCW looking into Sarah Kenan’s background, but renaming auditorium unlikely

Sarah Kenan is the daughter of white supremacist William Rand Kenan, and her name adorns two buildings at UNCW. The university is looking into it, but also hopes to preserve its relationship with the Kenan family. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — When UNCW formed a committee to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives in July, part of its scope involved looking into the background of Sarah Kenan. 

A philanthropist and heir to a family fortune, she often donated to UNCW during her life in the early 20th century. Now her name is attached to an auditorium and a hall on UNCW’s campus, and one of her former family homes on Market St. has been converted into the official house of the UNCW chancellor. 

Kenan is the daughter of William Rand Kenan, who participated in the massacre of Black Wilmington residents in 1898, the nation’s only successful coup d’état. 


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Many people have often misinterpreted the “Kenan” in Kenan Auditorium as being honorific of the problematic father, rather than Sarah, said Eddie Stuart, a vice chancellor at UNCW. 

He added the conversation on campus building names arrived from two parts. On one hand, when a group of Black student leaders convened with Chancellor Jose Sartarelli to discuss potential action items for diversity initiatives, it was floated that UNCW has hardly any buildings named after Black individuals. 

A situation emerged at UNC-Chapel Hill, where outcry over the Kenan name led the university to rededicate its Kenan Stadium specifically in honor of William Rand Kenan Jr. — Sarah’s brother.

 And in New Hanover County, Hugh MacRae park was renamed Long Leaf Park by the board of commissioners during the summer, as residents brought more attention to MacRae’s association with the white supremacist uprising of 1898.

“We owe it to our constituents, our students, employees, alumni, other donors across the board, to make sure that there’s nothing that would create a reputational risk to the university by having Sarah Graham Kenan’s name on those two buildings,” Stuart said. 

Since its founding in July, the Change and Renewal Accountability Committee has met at least twice, in October and December, and has not specifically jumped into an analysis of Kenan’s history and the prospect of renaming the auditorium. This is partly because, Stuart said, the board of trustees has authority over names of campus buildings. 

“Obviously, any time they’re going to name a building, or a street or a wing, gym or whatever, they want to make sure that the person it’s getting named after isn’t going to create any blemish on the university’s reputation,” Stuart said.

Reports from the university indicate the renaming of Kenan Hall and Kenan Auditorium are potential action items. Though, it appears unlikely the board of trustees would approve a proposal to strip the Kenan name from the campus, since Stuart said nothing concerning about Sarah Kenan’s background has been unearthed. 

Stuart, who helms university advancement, said he and Donyell Roseboro, the university’s interim chief diversity officer, are creating a team that will perform a deep dive into Sarah Kenan’s background.

“They’re going to be finding out the best way to go about answering the questions we would like to have answered institutionally about Ms. Kenan,” Stuart said. “Her background, and her wealth and where it came from and all that kind of stuff.”

Stuart added that typically naming a building involves honoring an individual who contributed a gift to the university. In 2015, UNCW expanded its policies to formalize a process for honorific namings, those that weren’t in exchange for money, but were done to honor the societal contributions of an alumni or other community figure. 

“It’s not that it’s fallen down as a priority, it’s just that there’s a lot of work that has to be done,” Stuart said. “It’s not as simple as slapping it on a trustee’s agenda and then exploring the idea, and so we want to make sure we don’t inadvertently torch a multi-generational relationship we have with the Kenan family. They have been very open and very helpful with us as we approach this issue.”

Roseboro was named interim chief diversity officer in September, after an intense summer for the university. Black student leaders held conversations with Chancellor Jose Sartarelli focused on how to advance diversity and inclusion at UNCW. Meanwhile, one of UNCW’s own professors, Mike Adams, was assailing students on social media and causing chaos. After accepting a retirement package from the university, he was found dead in his home by police. 

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“As a public university, we have a particular responsibility to know the full history of this institution,” Roseboro said in a statement. “As complicated or difficult as that history may be, we must question it. Building names represent that history, yet they must also reflect the institutional values we embrace today. I cannot predict what may happen with every building name on our campus, but I can say we are committed to studying the legacy of those names and clearly articulating what our campus-wide legacy will be moving forward.”


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