May 4 Course Takes Students on Journey Through History
As part of Kent State University’s May 4 course, senior Julia Pharmer sifted through resources in University Libraries' Department of Special Collections and Archives and engaged in classroom discussions. Perhaps one of the most engaging sessions though was when Professor Emerita Laura Davis, Ph.D., gave students a firsthand account of her May 4 experiences.
Recently Dr. Davis, the co-creator of the May 4 Walking Tour and the May 4 Visitor Center, decided against using a classroom slide presentation, instead opting to take advantage of a mild early March evening to walk with students on the landscape where the May 4 protests and shootings occurred.
On that evening, Ms. Pharmer and her classmates learned details about Dr. Davis’ experiences as a former student activist who protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and who witnessed the killing of four students and wounding of nine others by the Ohio National Guard.
As Dr. Davis walked along campus, she shared with the students her memories of the events of April 30 through May 3, 1970. Then the group climbed Blanket Hill, where Dr. Davis asked the students to gather closer together as she stood on the pagoda at the top of the hill. There she recounted how she had just descended the hill on May 4, 1970, before the shooting began.
“I saw the guardsmen turn in unison and start shooting,” Dr. Davis recalled. “I started screaming, 'they are shooting their guns.’ Then someone pulled me into the back of Lake Hall.”
Dr. Davis said when she went back outside she saw Jeffrey Miller and William Schroeder lying on the ground, both of whom lost their lives in the shooting. “In panorama, I saw clusters of people standing looking at the ground. I know they were looking at people who were shot.” Allison Krause and Sandra Scheuer are the other two students who died in the shooting.
The walk with Dr. Davis helped Ms. Pharmer envision the details of the protests and the shootings.
“It was good to visualize the distance from the hill to where the (parking lot) markers are,” Ms. Pharmer said during a classroom discussion after the walk. “I had a hard time understanding the movements” of the National Guard and the students.
May 4, 1970, and Its Aftermath, a popular course taught once a year in the spring, leads students through the events of the 1960s across the United States leading up to the shootings, and the cultural, historical, social and political contexts associated with these events. Students also examine the aftermath of May 4, including the controversy over constructing the Gym Annex on the May 4 site, the legal trials, and the role and politics of the commemorations and memorials.
“We ask students 'what do you know about May 4' and you’ll get some students who have either had friends or relatives who’ve talked about it or they are from Kent and have heard the stories over the years,” said Associate Professor Karen Cunningham, who has taught the course for four years. “We get a mix of students who know very little and some who know more, but they are trying to sort out what stories are correct.”
Students who take the course come from several disciplines, including communications, Pan-African Studies and sociology.
Senior political science major Megan Below said she took the course so that when people ask her about May 4, 1970, she will be knowledgeable beyond the basic details that she knew.
“I wanted to take the class to get more into what really happened,” Ms. Below says. “There is a lot that we’ve already talked about that I didn’t know had occurred. It’s really interesting understanding the context of what happened.”
It is becoming increasingly important that students learn the truth and pass the mantle on to others as the university approaches the 50th commemoration in 2020.
“I tell the students that they are very fortunate to still have so many people around to talk about what happened on May 4 because we’ve lost a number of them through the years and they are getting fewer and fewer,” Ms. Cunningham said. “The students are really excited to hear the stories about what it was like to be there and the impact it had on them.”
That is precisely why the Kent State Board of Trustees recent resolution to assume responsibility for the annual May 4 Commemoration and ongoing educational events through the Office of the President beginning with the 50th commemoration and going forward is so important, according to Dr. Davis. Kent State President Beverly J. Warren recommended the change.
“In addition, the May 4 Visitors Center and Walking Tour were created specifically to stand in for those who would no longer be here to tell the story,” Dr. Davis added.
In addition to visiting the May 4 Visitors Center, students spend time going through the May 4 Special Collections and Archives because they will be required to do research for group projects on various topics involving May 4 and its aftermath.
The class listens to oral histories from former faculty or staff, national guardsmen and community members in addition to former students such as Dr. Davis.
“After they hear all of the stories, they ask ‘Why are all of these stories different? How do we put all of these stories together to get a comprehensive look of what was going on at the time?'”
Ms. Cunningham grew up in Ashtabula County and was only 8 years old in 1970 so she remembers little about May 4. She did attend Kent State from 1979 to 1982 and has her own experiences with the aftermath of May 4.
The day she was going off to college, her car was packed and as she stood in the driveway with her father, he said to her, “Just remember, don’t throw rocks at people who are carrying guns.” Ms. Cunningham said she learned later that “sometimes even when you aren’t throwing rocks at people who are carrying guns, you may end up getting killed.”
During Ms. Cunningham’s first week at Kent State, she and her roommate were walking on campus and came across the May 4 Task Force protesting the insensitivity of building the Gym Annex on the May 4 site.
“It was the first demonstration we saw on campus as freshmen,” Ms. Cunningham said. “We got into the spirit of things. People were chanting ‘long live the spirit of Kent State and Jackson State.’ We ended up on the 6 o’clock news right in the front. My mother threatened to pull me out of college because I had turned into a radical after three days.”
The students will not have firsthand knowledge of the events of May 4, 1970, or its aftermath. However, once they complete the course, they will have a unique role in history.
“You are the minority – the people who know more about May 4 than others throughout the world,” Dr. Davis said. “You are ambassadors of the truth. It will make you better citizens and make others better citizens.”
To learn about Kent State's plans for the 50th commemoration of May 4, visit www.kent.edu/may4kentstate50.