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WNY historian wounded at Kent State reflects on 'Fire in the Heartland'

May 4 Collection, Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives

For Tom Grace, the events of May 4, 1970 have been a major part of his life- ever since he was wounded when the National Guard opened fire on anti-war protestors and killed four at Kent State University in Ohio.

But this year, with the racial justice movement again front-and-center, he says the events resonate even more than they otherwise would, in a 50th anniversary year.

“I think what Kent State can teach is the importance of white people supporting the demands of African Americans to be treated as full citizens of this country,” says Grace, a local labor leader and professor who was one of nine who were injured at the Kent State shootings that killed four people.

Grace who was the Buffalo-regional director of the Public Employees Federation, teaches history at SUNY Erie, with a concentration on the Civil War.  But he is also the author of “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the long Sixties”—and the historian consultant to the documentary “Fire In The Heartland: The Kent State Story”


The documentary airs on WNED PBS, Tuesday August 11, at 10 pm- and tells a broad tale, putting the shootings in the context of a bigger struggle than just some students opposed to the Vietnam War.


“One of the strengths of the film that will be broadcast this evening. Is that it It portrays some of this history. So we can see on screen some film from 1960, where some white and black students are are being interviewed about the protests.

“It ...  will be seen in the film that opened up the opportunities for African Americans to address other racial ills, grievances that they had with the University. And it was so effective that the university wound up backing down and in agreeing to meet many of their goals,” Grace says.

While both Grace’s book and the documentary touch on the broader racial justice narrative, it also describes the events of the day when the National Guard opened fire.

Credit Kent State University
Tom Grace is a lecturer at SUNY Erie and was one of the nine wounded when the National Guard fired on protesters at Kent State University May 4, 1970

Grace was a 20-year old sophomore from Syracuse in 1970,  studying politcal science and active in the protests before and after the shootings.  On May 4, he attended a rally against the US involvement in Cambodia.  He was in front of Taylor Hall when guardsmen turned toward a parking lot and opened fire.

“I remember hearing one or two rifle shots.  I turned around and started to run and I don't think I got more than a step or two, and a bullet had entered my left heel and took off the whole side of my left foot. And that’s the bad news. The good news is that the force of the bullet knocked me to the ground. So I was I was prone when all these bullets were going over my head and had I not been knocked down—we’ll never know this of course--- but had I not been knocked down, it's possible that I would have been hit in the back as I was running away from the rifle fire which went on for another 11 or 12 seconds and wound up hitting 13 people myself being one of them.”

Grace rode in the ambulance that day with Sandra Lee Scheuer, who died before she arrived with him at the hospital.  Allison Beth Krause, 19, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20 and William Knox Schroeder, 19, were also killed that day.

The shootings sparked nationwide protests at other college campuses

“ Some historians and many authors will concede that in in the immediate aftermath of the killings at Kent State, there was widespread outrage. And indeed, probably the most prolonged outrage until we've seen the the latest response to the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis. But many writers and historians felt that there was kind of a last hurrah of the anti war movement. And that was not true. It was not true at Kent State. And nor was it true nationally. And at Kent State protest went on there as long as did the Vietnam War. And indeed, they went on after the Vietnam War