The 1970 Kent State Shootings Through The Eyes Of A Child

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops killed four students and wounded nine others during the course of an anti-war protest at Kent State University.

For many Americans, the story of the Kent State shootings, 50 years ago, often consists of shouting protestors, marching guardsmen and 13 seconds of gunfire. But, Emily Burnell Petrou has some different memories. She was 10 that year, and her diary describes those disturbing events through the eyes of a child. 

Two Playgrounds

Emily Burnell Petrou [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

“The street we grew up on, which is just a few blocks from the campus, was, I think, the perfect place to grow up,” Emily said. “At one point in the 1960s, there were 63 children on this one street. There were always teams building to play kickball, flashlight tag, kick the can.

[Burnell family]

“I would say the Kent State campus was a second playground to us because it was walkable,” she said. “Or we could ride on our bikes and we would just go up there and roam, observe the students, fly kites.”

[Burnell family]

Emily’s mother, Guenveur Burnell, agreed, 

“To me, that's what childhood is all about,” she said.

Guenveur Burnell [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

Documenting a Child’s Life

My mother was a good storyteller. We were avid readers,” Emily said. “And I think everyone in my family always liked to document things. And so, I think that's where the relationship with having a diary came from.”

DIARY ENTRY: April 30. My birthday! I got a green bead necklace that Sally made, a frog book bag, a big stamps set, a doll case, clothes for Julia and a first aid kit.

[Emily Petrou]

Emily Petrou’s diary reflected the major events of her life, and her 10th birthday was a big deal. But, Thursday, April 30, 1970 was also the day President Richard Nixon announced a military incursion against North Vietnamese troops in an expanding conflict in Southeast Asia. That announcement sparked several days of unrest in Kent.

I could hear noise downtown from my bedroom window,” said Guenveur. “And I just thought it was spring craziness, one of the first warm nights we'd had and people always went downtown.”

I was sleeping over at my friend Nancy’s house, two doors down,” said Emily. “We’re lying in bed. And we hear this yipping.”

DIARY ENTRY: May 1. Yay!! Friday!! Today I slept with Nancy. We had fun. We heard some yelling and a gun fire. Nancy got scared and thought they were Indians.

[Emily Petrou]

“And the crowd started getting noisy and moving around,” said Guenveur. “And then somebody started smashing windows. And then the mayor called everybody out of the bars. He called the cops, came out and rounded up a whole bunch of drunken students who were milling around downtown.”

“The next day, we went downtown with my mother, and I still remember seeing all the broken glass and everything,” said Emily. “And the commotion was - I hate to say it - for a child, it was kind of exciting. Nobody explained to me what had happened.”

DIARY ENTRY: May 2. The Indian-sounding things were jerks and they wrecked-up the town!! Pictures were in the paper!! Everything was on the radio!!

[Emily Petrou]

That evening, unknown arsonists set the campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building on fire, burning it to the ground.

“And my memory of that is still very vivid, the orange glow in the sky in the direction of the campus,” said Emily. “And I think I even remember hearing students chanting.”

“And that's when they called the National Guard, that night,” said Guenveur.

An Army Comes To Town

Governor James Rhodes ordered Ohio National Guard troops into Kent, after a request from Mayor Leroy Satrom. Among the guardsmen deployed to Kent was Guenveur’s brother, Edward.

[Edward Harper]

“He had been a helicopter pilot in during the Cold War in Europe, and he loved flying helicopters,” she said. “So when he got back to civilian life, he figured out the only way he was going to be able to fly a helicopter was to join the National Guard, which is what he did.”

DIARY ENTRY: May 3. Helicopter Day!! Uncle Edward flew over very low today!!

[Emily Petrou]

“Every kid in the neighborhood ran out and waved to him,” said Guenveur. “He was well known amongst the neighborhood children.”

“So, May 3rd was all about this army that was in our town,” said Emily. “They were bunking at our elementary school where my brother and I were attending. So, we went over there and the guardsmen were everywhere and we sat on a little bluff on a hill and watched them playing on our playground. They were on the monkey bars. They were on the merry-go-round. They looked like they were having so much fun.”

When Guenveur came to pick her children up from school, she got into a conversation with one of the guardsmen. He said he’d been up all night.

“The school grounds are surrounded on one side by woods,” she said. “And he said, all night long people in the woods were catcalling and making insults and everything. He had a gun, an M1 rifle. And I said, well, ‘You wouldn't shoot anybody, would you?’ He said, ‘I'm so tired right now. I’d just about shoot anybody.’”

And our whole lives, we've wondered if he was one of the guardsmen who fired a fatal bullet,” said Emily. “We'll never know.”

Aftermath

“There were rumors of armed students who had killed guardsmen and that there were snipers loose in town,” said Guenveur. “Then the newspaper came.  It was then an afternoon paper and the headline: ‘Two Guardsmen Killed by Protesters.’ The radio didn't announce what actually happened until about 4:30.”

DIARY ENTRY: May 4. Today Larry Prichard fell asleep in school when we had history. When he woke up, he said that the helicopters last night kept him awake. He had a crew-cut. Today, during school, David Starcher was dismissed because his mother was worried about the major riot. So then, other parents came for their children.

[Emily Petrou]

“I do remember watching the national news that night,” Emily said. “They kept playing the same things over and over again, and watching an ambulance go flying over the commons, which was like my playground. The sickening feeling of hearing that siren and seeing that ambulance. I think that's when it really started to hit me what had actually happened.”

“It still makes me angry. But, yes, I know there were people who were frightened,” Guenveur said. “Nobody knew what PTSD was in those days. We never heard the term. We had no idea of the impact of something like that on a community. And we really had no idea of how to cope with it.”

“People who were in this town at that time, to this day, when we hear more than one helicopter, if you hear two or more helicopters, we all have that nervous flashback to that night,” Emily said. "There's a pain that's still palpable. 50 years later, there's a pain and sorrow in this town. I just honestly don’t think it will ever be healed."

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