Kent State Finally Facing Its Past

Forty years ago tomorrow, the Ohio National Guard pointed their guns and shot into a crowd of Kent State students — some protesting, some observing, some changing class.  Thirteen seconds later, four students were killed and nine injured, one of them permanently paralyzed.  The shootings culminated four days of growing tension, protests and violence, and placed May 4, 1970, as a turning point in American history.  It has been a long, controversial journey for Kent State to come to grips with its past, but it looks like the road is finally going in the right direction.

Five years ago, I began researching how Kent State was dealing with its infamous place in history and, from a tourism perspective, I didn’t think it was doing that great a job.  It’s not that the university has not responded to the tragedy of May 4 — it has; however, I think some of the responses have been more “feel good” solutions that focus only on the future.  

For example, the  Center for Peaceful Change (now the Center for Applied Conflict Management), was created in 1971 for “the study and promotion of peaceful and more constructive mechanisms of change,” according to the university’s Web site.  An annual academic symposium on democracy was introduced in 2000.  Again, these are not bad responses — in fact, they serve an important role; in order to analyze a historic event, one must look at the broader context of that event and its impact.  At the same time, however, there must be recognition of the past that explains to visitors what actually happened at the site.  Although this was addressed somewhat by the creation of the May 4 Resource Center,  a public reading room located in the campus library, it did not go far enough, in my opinion.  It took 20 years for a memorial to be erected — a controversy itself that is way too detailed to go into here — and nearly 10 more years for markers to be constructed in the parking lot where the four students laid slain.

As a researcher in a phenomenon referred to as “dark tourism,” I can say that such a reaction is not unusual.  When bad things happen — whether they be of a historic, cultural or criminal nature — the location takes on the image of a “place of shame” — a “gee, we really wished this hadn’t happened HERE”  attitude.   It’s perfectly understandable; it’s not pleasant to deal with a painful heritage.  However, at some point, places of shame of a historic nature must understand their importance and realize that tourists will come to the site to learn about and see that history regardless of whether the place welcomes them.

When I first visited Kent State, I went there not as a researcher, but as a member of the generation so affected by the shootings.  Had I not known about the part of the campus where the shootings occurred, I would not have found the location.  In 2005, when I returned as a researcher, I took note of such things as directional signage (which was very poor and, in one case, contained a misspelling) and places for visitors to park — there were four parking meters at the site where people could park for a limited 15 minutes.  In other words, a clear nonverbal message that “we really don’t want you to stay long.”

Ohio Historical Society MarkerLast month, I returned for a follow-up research visit and I can honestly say I was shocked with the changes that had occurred in such a brief time span.  Directional signage was plentiful and clearly marked the way to the memorial and site.  There were still only four parking meters, but the time had been increased.  Once I parked the car, the first thing I noticed was a marker erected by the Ohio Historical Society, which did not sugarcoat what had happened there.  I also learned of a new visitor’s center and walking tour being developed. 

The tour, which was dedicated today, is simply outstanding!  It consists of seven stops that will take visitors through the events leading up to the shootings and the aftermath.  The marker at each stop features audio and video as well as text.  They truly capture the history of the place.  I can’t imagine that this was easy; the story of May 4 and its place in history is extremely complex.  Also dedicated today were plaques recognizing the site on the National Register of Historic Places — a multi-year effort that recently succeeded.   

Kent State Visitor's CenterA visitor’s center is also being planned; housed in Taylor Hall, near where the shootings took place, it will tell the story of the Kent State shootings, putting them in context of the historical era and discussing their political and cultural impact.  Fundraising is currently underway under the theme, “Be part of history.”

Just 40 years is a significant milestone in a person’s lifetime — often a time for introspection — it appears Kent State has taken the same opportunity to digest its place in history.  The university’s earlier attempts to focus on only the future is now balanced with a reflection on the past in an effort to impact the present.

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2 Responses

  1. Really interesting as I remember being at home as a teenager trying to make sense of it as it unfolded on the nightly news

  2. Yes, I’ve never forgotten that. I started doing the research when I casually mentioned “Kent State” in one of my classes and students had no idea what I was talking about.

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