May 4 Oral History Project Provides Perspective To Tragedy

Words by: Alex Kamczyc, Alec Slovenec

Over the past 28 years, the May 4th Oral History Project has been shedding light on the lost stories surrounding the infamous Kent State University massacre. The project has served as a way to document the shooting based on testimonies from several witnesses. It reminds us of why our history is important in American culture, allowing Kent students to listen to the school’s historic past.

Thanks to the work of university archivists at Kent State University,the project will now be available for students to access it online at home on their computers.

The Kent State Shootings Oral Histories provide researchers and other interested parties with multiple viewpoints on this event, from eyewitness accounts to accounts by others who were living in Kent or were otherwise affected by the shootings.” said Cara Gilgenbach, the head of the special collections archives at Kent State, through email. “It allows students and others to hear a variety of stories about a very complex event.

The oral history project began in the 1990s in order to construct a bigger picture of what happened that day on campus. They were originally recorded on analog audio cassette tapes. By the late 90s, Kent’s historians and archivists began converting recordings into digital audio files as well as transcribing each story.

The project includes interviews from a wide array of people such as first responders, faculty, Kent residents, even politicians and Vietnam War veterans. The focus of the project was to paint a bigger picture about the tragedy by including interviews of not only those who were on campus that day, but the people that lived in the city to find out how they felt about the matter also.

“We kept interviewing the same people, the news reporters would always come in and talk to the same major players,” said Sandra Halem, the president of the Kent State Historic Society and founder of the May 4th Oral History Project. She also lived in Kent with her husband, Henry at the time the tragedy happened. “…An event has multiple ramifications for the community. It echoes through people’s lives… I wanted to look at how those ripples affected the greater community.”

Virginia Dressler, digital projects librarian of Kent State, has been working with the May 4 Oral Histories Project since 2014. According to Dressler, one of the most recent changes was making it possible to stream the oral history interviews from the website. They began digitizing the collection of interviews last spring, in 2017. Before that, students would have had to make an appointment to listen to them.

According to its website, The Department of Special Collections and Archives acquires, preserves, and provides access to primary sources and rare materials that support the teaching and research programs of Kent State University. This includes things related to Kent State’s historic and tragic past.

“It’s a huge difference to hear it. It’s like that emotion in somebody’s voice,” Dressler said. “I think sometimes when you’re reading something you can kind of read it in your own voice in some ways, but then when you hear somebody say it, you know their intonation or if they’re really stressing one thing, I think it comes through.”

The Oral History Project partnered with the research burough on campus, which has helped with transcribing the interviews for the archives for the digital catalogue.

The process for digitizing each oral story can be long and  tedious. According to Dressler, the process involves someone sitting down and taking old VHS tapes or cassettes, playing them through in real time, and converting them into computer files.

“There’s no fast way to do it, other than just sitting there,” said Dressler. “Most of that stuff is painfully slow.”

According to Hughes-Watkins, they are always gaining new insight from interviews decades after the shootings. Just last year, they learned about students who were still on campus after the shootings, and how eerie campus was.

“You learn something new from each interview.” said Lael Hughes-Watkins, the university archivist as well as the administrator of the oral history project. 

Students who are curious about Kent’s history can now listen to some interviews of the vast catalogue online now.  In fact, they’re urged to take time and listen to the interviews to understand what happened.

“The reason why the May 4 Oral History Project is important is because it does offer that eyewitness account,” said  Hughes Watkins. “It is something to have a chance to hear those individuals who were present or who were impacted by May 4. Even though it’s that one event, it’s always fascinating to hear how various people of different vantages interpreted that event in time.”