Preserving May 4 Was Special Work of Four Faculty Members
When the site of the May 4, 1970 shootings on Kent State’s campus was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016, it solidified the tragedy’s significance as a touchstone in U.S. history. But for the team of Kent State faculty members who spearheaded the effort, the journey to that recognition was deeply personal.
Four professors emeriti devoted themselves to the work of preserving the site and legacy of that day. Some were directly involved in the nomination for the National Historic Landmark designation. Others helped lay the foundation through work on projects that led to the nomination, including the National Register of Historic Places and the May 4 Visitors Center.
Of those four, two were on the commons in 1970 when National Guardsmen opened fire on the crowd of students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. The third was a childhood friend of Sandra Scheuer, who was among the four students slain. The fourth took his place in the student protest movement of that time on another college campus as the impact of May 4, 1970 reverberated throughout the nation.
They all carried deep emotion about that moment in time. But they approached their work on the projects that underpinned the National Historic Landmark designation with the focus of scholars intent on preserving the site and the memories of those who were there so that others might learn from them.
Jerry M. Lewis
Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jerry M. Lewis, Ph.D., was a new professor on May 4, 1970. In the days prior to that weekend, Dr. Lewis had been designated a faculty marshal, charged with discouraging students from going to downtown Kent, where planned protests were anticipated to turn violent. He hadn’t intended to be on the commons for the campus demonstration, but a student convinced him to go.
Standing in the Prentice Hall parking lot, he watched as the National Guardsmen moved to the top of the hill, turned right and leveled their weapons. As a former soldier himself, he understood that the smoke billowing from the weapons meant they were firing live ammunition. He dove for cover. He had been standing 15 yards behind Sandy Scheuer.
Before May 4, 1970, Dr. Lewis’ area of interest in the field of sociology had been crowd behavior and the response to it. Not surprisingly, after that day, analysis of the events he witnessed became a focus of his career.
In 1971, he worked with Kent State students to establish the May 4 Candlelight Vigil and Walk, a tradition that has continued every year since.
Dr. Lewis has written extensively about May 4, 1970, from the perspective of a sociologist. In the mid-1970s, he and Professor Emeritus of Political Science Thomas R. Hensley developed Kent State’s permanent course, May 4, 1970 and Its Aftermath. Even after his retirement in 1996, he continues to contribute to the understanding of May 4, 1970, through lecturing and sharing his story with anyone who asks.
“I do this because I promised Mrs. Scheuer (Sandy’s mother) I would never stop talking about what happened,” Dr. Lewis said.
In 2000, Drs. Lewis and Hensley passed along their course, May 4, 1970 and Its Aftermath, to Carole Barbato, Ph.D., who later became professor of communications studies, and Laura Davis, Ph.D., who later became professor of English. He also recruited them to help with the work of attaining national recognition of the historical significance of the May 4 site.
Carole Barbato and Laura Davis
Drs. Barbato and Davis met as colleagues at Kent State’s East Liverpool campus in 1989. But it wasn’t until six years later that they would come together on the literal common ground that would bond them for life.
They discovered that they had a connection with Kent State that went far beyond being coworkers. Both had been Kent State students at the time of the shootings in 1970, and they shared the memories that still haunted them. For Dr. Davis, it was the image of fellow students lying dead on the ground; for Dr. Barbato, the shock of hearing that her friend, Sandy Scheuer, was among those killed.
Each went to events every year to mark the tragedy because she felt the human responsibility to honor those who were lost.
Their paths were remarkably similar: Both continued their education at Kent State following the shootings, staying on for advanced degrees and eventually taking on teaching posts that would lead to professorships in their chosen disciplines.
“It really was the start of a very close bond between us,” said Dr. Davis, now professor emerita. “We started doing programs at our campus and other regional campuses. We both served on planning committees for the 30th Anniversary Commemoration.”
Like Dr. Lewis, Drs. Barbato and Davis dedicated their careers and beyond to ensure the lessons of May 4, 1970, would endure. They incorporated analysis and discussion of those events into their own classes. They led tours on demand for visitors to campus interested in learning more about the history. And they co-taught the May 4 and Its Aftermath course for more than a decade.
They understood that conveying the facts of what happened was essential to understanding the vital lessons to be taken from that tragic day.
But they knew the voices of that day wouldn’t be around forever, and it was important to preserve them somehow.
So Drs. Davis and Barbato created the May 4 site audio walking tour, which was dedicated in 2010. That work contributed to the opening in 2012 of the May 4 Visitors Center on the first floor of Taylor Hall, just steps from the shooting site. The comprehensive, interactive museum covers the shootings at Kent State set in the context of the student protest movement that helped define the 1960s and early 1970s.
“The idea of the May 4 Visitors Center was to be a place that would tell the story in a deeper way, to access the history and the stories of the people who were there (through video and audio recordings),” Dr. Davis said. “Carole and I had come to a point where we were starting to get worried that we were getting closer to retirement, and we knew others in our generation were as well. We started thinking ahead to what was going to happen when no one was there in person to tell the story.”
That concern proved prescient. On April 30, 2014, only days before the letter of inquiry was sent kicking off the process that would end in the National Historic Landmark designation, Dr. Barbato passed away after a short illness.
Sitting on her sun porch in Kent, two days after the 49th commemoration of May 4, Dr. Davis wept at the loss of her friend, now gone five years.
“To this day, it’s just devastating that she’s gone. It’s just devastating,” Dr. Davis said. “Carole is in every molecule of the walking tour and of the Visitor Center, of the Historic Register nomination. And still here in the National Historic Landmark document, even though she wasn’t alive to see the designation be granted.”
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Mark Seeman was a senior at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania on May 4,1970. A friend who was pursuing his Ph.D. at Kent State came to stay with him following the shootings.
“When the university closed down, my friend and a friend of his came and stayed at my apartment in Meadville, Pa.,” Dr. Seeman said. “They were emotional and crying. That was the personal connection I had to Kent State on that day.”
That connection took stronger hold when Dr. Seeman accepted a position on the faculty of Kent State’s anthropology department in 1976. Through his work as an archaeologist, he had served on the Ohio Advisory Council for Historic Preservation and was chair of that organization under then-Gov. Ted Strickland. He had nominated other sites for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Register, a program of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is a list of 95,000 sites throughout the United States deemed historically significant and worthy of preservation.
“I became convinced that before I retired, I wanted to see the site where these things happened on May 4, 1970 (be included) on the National Register of Historic Places,” Dr. Seeman said.
S0, Dr. Seeman decided to lend his experience and understanding of the process to that goal. In early 2006, he approached his colleague Dr. Lewis for help. He immediately suggested they involve Drs. Barbato and Davis.
The timing turned out to be serendipitous, Dr. Davis recalled. She and Dr. Barbato had been working out the details for the audio walking tour. The research and writing necessary could serve for both projects.
In February of 2010, nearly four years after the team of Kent State professors came together, the May 4, 1970 site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in time for the 40th anniversary commemoration.
The National Register of Historic Places program is administered in part at the state level before nominations are forwarded to the National Park Service. In Ohio, the organization Ohio History Connection processes nominations and, when appropriate, recommends a few noteworthy sites for the more distinctive designation of National Historic Landmark, another program of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior.
In May 2014, the staff of the Ohio History Connection sent a letter of inquiry to the National Historic Landmark office about the possibility of nominating the May 4, 1970 site for the distinction. The response from the national office was enthusiastic.
“The representatives from the National Historic Landmark office were off-the-charts supportive of the idea of the nomination coming from Kent State,” Dr. Davis said. But, she said, they had specific instructions of what they wanted to see in the nomination.
While Drs. Barbato and Lewis contributed to work along the path to the National Historic Landmark nomination, they were not directly involved with the nomination for the designation itself. Dr. Davis led the process as “first author” of the nomination. Dr. Seeman was “second author.” Associate Professor of History Bradley Keefer, Ph.D.; May 4 Visitors Center Director Mindy Farmer, Ph.D.; and May 4 Visitors Center Assistant Director Lori Boes also participated in that process.
Drs. Davis and Seeman said the nomination needed to include analysis of the May 4, 1970 site in the context of:
Other places in U.S. history where the government used deadly force to put down protest such as Wounded Knee and the Edmund Pettus bridge.
The national student movement of the 1960s and early 70s, including the protests at the University of California Berkeley Campus and Columbia University.
Other anti-war protests that ended in tragedy: Jackson State, where police opened fire and killed two students and injured 12 during a civil-rights protest less than two weeks after the Kent State shootings, and Orangeburg, S.C., where South Carolina Highway Patrol officers killed three civil rights protesters and injured 27 others on the campus of South Carolina State University in February, 1968.
The nomination also needed to include a clear description of the site’s boundaries. That task, Dr. Seeman said, wasn’t as easy as it might seem.
“How do you delineate and justify the boundaries for the May 4 site?” Dr. Seeman asked. “Actually providing the justification for where that 17.4 acres lie? There have been a lot of maps made, but they are not all the same. We had photographic evidence. We had informed testimony evidence. We looked at historic photographs to see where were the confrontations? Where were the students? Where did the troops go?”
He said the National Historic Landmark office recommended the Kent State team use a “battlefield model” to help define the boundaries.
“In that model, you aren’t just looking at where the battle occurred, but where the troops mustered to prepare for that battle,” he said. “While (May 4) wasn’t a battle, this was an appropriate model to help us figure out what was included, and what wasn’t included.”
Some are surprised to learn that the controversial Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center Annex, built in 1977 over a portion of the practice field that factored into the movement of the National Guard and the students on May 4, also is part of the National Historic Landmark site.
Dr. Seeman said one of the standards applied by the National Historic Landmark office in determining if a site qualifies is, “Does the site have sufficient integrity – if someone from 1970 was in a time machine, and they visited in 2019, would they recognize the place? We were able to document that the May 4 site contains something like 77 or 78% of its integrity. The majority of the non-integrity was that gym annex.”
He said, though the presence of the MACC Annex detracts from the site’s ability to tell the story of what happened in 1970, it became part of the story in 1977. Therefore, in the thinking of the historians at the National Park Service, it should be part of the preserved site with a separate period of significance, 1977.
There were other surprises on the path to achieving National Historic Landmark status.
The process, from nomination to decision, can take as long as six years to complete, said Dr. Davis. The May 4 team achieved the designation in only two.
The National Historic Landmark criteria requires that a site be at least 50 years old before it will be considered for nomination. The May 4 site nomination was considered and accepted four years before it would reach that milestone.
An exception was made because the site achieved historic significance well before it reached the 50-year mark. It has been, in the estimation of the National Historic Landmark office, an emblem of the student protest movement of the 1960s.
That description seems valid to Dr. Seeman.
“I am of my own generation. I wasn’t here (at Kent State) at the time, but I experienced the movement,” Dr. Seeman said. “I saw how it ripped apart our country. Of course I think that the activities on this campus helped to bring about an end to the Vietnam War. That is pretty well-documented. Will that be important for future generations?
“It’s hard to predict what people who are 15 years old now are going to see in this place, but I think the same can be said for any of these other places, like Wounded Knee or Orangeburg. We can’t say what will happen in the future, but we hope future visitors will find it as significant as part of their own life experiences.”
Fifty years after witnessing the horrors of May 4, 1970, Dr. Lewis is reluctant to express pride or satisfaction with the accomplishments of those who sought to preserve the site and history. He will allow that they have done what they can, and that, itself, is an accomplishment.
“People often say, ‘We’ll never know exactly what happened on May 4, 1970,’ “ Dr. Lewis said. “But we do know exactly what happened: (Members of the) National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded nine others. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but we have a tendency to not learn from our history.
“But, we did what we could. We have done our best.”
To learn more about Kent State’s plan for the 50th Commemoration of May 4, visit www.kent.edu/president/may4.
To learn more about the Kent State May 4 Visitors Center, visit www.kent.edu/may4visitorscenter.