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Which Kenan manned the machine gun in the 1898 riot?

Ben Steelman

The questioner is referring to William Rand Kenan Sr. (1845-1903), a Civil War veteran, life insurance agent, wholesale merchant and collector of customs for the port of Wilmington under President Grover Cleveland.

Kenan – sometimes known as “Buck” – was active in North Carolina’s state guard and particularly in the Wilmington Light Infantry, the city’s elite militia unit. In November 1898, he was captain of the Wilmington Light Infantry.

During the racial upheaval of Nov. 10, 1898, Kenan commanded a “gun squad” that mounted a machine gun on a horse-drawn wagon. Sometimes incorrectly described as a “Gatling gun,” the weapon was actually a Colt 6mm machine gun (about .23 caliber) capable of firing 420 bullets per minute, according to historian LeRae Umfleet.

White militiamen “believed that showing the gun in the black sections of the city would intimidate into quietude those who saw the weapon,” Umfleet wrote in her 2008 book about the riot, “A Day of Blood.” “Later recollections suggest that the gun likewise had a calming effect on white rioters, who were beyond the control of the military.”

Riding into neighborhoods around Wilmington, the gun squad came under gunfire at the intersection of Sixth and Brunswick streets and returned fire, killing as many as 25 men, according to accounts. Later in the day, gun crew members joined in gunfire in the area of Manhattan Park, at the vicinity of Seventh and Bladen streets.

Buck Kenan’s son, William Rand Kenan Jr. (1872-1965), later wrote in his autobiography, “There was a riot of colored men in Wilmington, and my father organized a volunteer company of men with all kinds of rifles together with a riot gun on a wagon and they cleaned up the riot very quickly, although they were compelled to kill several persons. He rode the wagon and directed the operations.”

Kenan Jr. claimed he was “a small boy” at the time of the riots. According to his biographer, Walter E. Campbell, however, Kenan – who had discovered a commercial means of synthesizing calcium carbide while a student at Chapel Hill – was 26 years old in 1898 and was working for Union Carbide at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., at the time of the riot.

For more information, see Walter E. Campbell’s “Across Fortune’s Tracks: A Biography of William Rand Kenan Jr.”


User-contributed question by:
judith whitney

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