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This parking space reserved for eternity.
This parking space reserved for eternity.

Site of the Kent State Massacre

Field review by the editors.

Kent, Ohio

For years Kent State University would've been happy if everyone had just let that day fade from memory -- May 4, 1970 -- the day that Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed college students, killing four, permanently crippling one, and wounding eight others.

Offerings at a tree memorial to fallen students.
Offerings at a tree memorial to fallen students.

The bloody event grabbed the media spotlight, especially shocking because it didn't occur at Berkeley or some other hotbed of campus unrest. It happened at a mild-mannered Midwestern state college, whose students had only recently joined the protest movement against the Vietnam War.

Passing decades have made a difference. Now Kent State wouldn't mind if everyone stopped by to relive that day.

The public attitude shift actually began in 1990, when the college allowed the construction of a bland concrete memorial near (but not at) the massacre site. In 1999 the university froze certain massacre moments in asphalt by blocking off the four parking spaces where the fatally wounded students fell. In 2006 a historical marker went up; in 2010 a Walking Tour of the site was installed, complete with trail markers and narration via mobile phone. There's even a "see the bullet hole"-like moment where tour-walkers can peer up close at a rusty campus sculpture that still has a hole from a powerful .30-06 National Guard round.

Visitors may have to remind themselves that they're on a college campus retracing a lopsided clash and ensuing tragedy, not on the Gettysburg battlefield, reliving Pickett's Charge.

Hats owned by the victims.
Hats owned by the victims.

Kent State's new approach took its biggest step yet in 2013, when the May 4 Visitor Center officially opened in the old Kent State college newspaper office, just around the corner from where the bullets flew. Visitors are encouraged to check their birthdays against a tote board to see if they would have been drafted in 1970; to see a dink beanie and hippie hat owned by the two young women who were killed; and to peruse the editorial cartoons of former Kent State student Tom Batiuk, who went on to create Funky Winkerbean.

May 4 Visitor Center displays and interactive exhibits.
May 4 Visitor Center displays and interactive exhibits.

"A majority of people still can't believe this actually happened," said Lori Boes, assistant director of the Center. "People thought of Kent as a sleepy little Midwestern town."

The first gallery in the Center sets the political and cultural scene for the shootings. Old TV sets play footage of the Vietnam War, Kennedy speeches, and people singing, "We Shall Overcome." The second gallery is a motion-activated multi-image show of the massacre, which was surprisingly well-documented by students with photos and even audio of the fusillade and screams. A box of tissues on the floor has to be replaced "fairly frequently," according to Lori.

The final gallery chronicles the blowback from the shootings, which was not universally condemned (Vice-President Spiro Agnew tepidly described the bullet barrage as "an over-response"). Most people were sickened by the photo of Mary Ann Vecchio wailing over the body of dead Jeffrey Miller -- but outrage, said Lori, cut both ways. "Locally, a lot of the reaction was, 'They should have shot all of them,'" she said. "But the further you got away from here the less people felt that way."

Key moments chronicled at the May 4 Visitor Center.
Key moments chronicled at the May 4 Visitor Center.

A visit to the site of the Kent State Massacre is a reminder that even modern history is muddled, with just enough human recklessness and idiocy to make a mess of things. Lori said that despite all the attention, we still don't know why the National Guardsmen mowed down the kids. "The students who come here today ask all the time, 'Why didn't the students leave when they were told to?'" said Lori. "We try to explain to them what was going on in the 1960s, and why the students then were protesting, and not listening."

Site of the Kent State Massacre

300 Midway Drive, Kent, OH
On the campus of Kent State University. I-76 exit 33. Drive north on Hwy 43 for a little over two miles into town. Turn right onto Hwy 59/Haymaker Pkwy. Drive east one mile. The University will be on your right. Turn right onto Midway Drive. The third building on the right will be Prentice Hall, a dorm. Turn right into the parking lot just after Prentice Hall. The four blocked-off death sites are scattered in and around this parking lot. At the back of the lot is Taylor Hall. In front of it is the abstract metal sculpture with a bullet hole; on its ground floor is the Visitor Center, 101 Taylor Hall.
Visitor Center M-F 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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