A Cop Gouged Out A Black Vet’s Eyes. 73 Years Later, The SC Town Confronts It.

Isaac Woodard just want­ed to get home and see his wife. He’d been in the Army more than three years, a long­shore­man for the Pacific fleet in the wan­ing days of World War II. Finally, on Feb. 12, 1946, he was on a Greyhound bus bound for Winnsboro. But he wouldn’t make it — or ever see his wife again.

Because he was black, Woodard wasn’t allowed to fight dur­ing the war, but the dec­o­rat­ed sol­dier would become one of the most infa­mous casu­al­ties of an ugly chap­ter in American his­to­ry.

That night, Woodard asked the bus dri­ver for a bath­room break just out­side of Aiken. The dri­ver was rude to him, lat­er claim­ing the sol­dier was drunk and dis­turb­ing oth­er pas­sen­gers. Woodard took umbrage, but didn’t make a scene. When the bus stopped in Batesburg, how­ev­er, the dri­ver called the police. Woodard — still wear­ing his Army dress uni­form — protest­ed he’d done noth­ing wrong. But he was beat­en and arrest­ed.

And just out­side the jail, the police chief took his black­jack and gouged out Woodard’s eyes.

The sto­ry shocked the coun­try, and ulti­mate­ly led President Truman to deseg­re­gate the mil­i­tary. But more than 70 years lat­er, almost no one in the town where it hap­pened knew about Woodard’s plight until researchers request­ed records per­tain­ing to the inci­dent.

Such sto­ries aren’t proud­ly passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. Unlike some small Southern towns, which often ignore the trou­ble­some ele­ments of their past, Batesburg-Leesville (the two towns merged in 1993) has embraced Woodard’s tragedy and tried to make amends.

In June, the town expunged the sergeant’s 73-year-old crim­i­nal record. “Our Town Attorney Chris Spradley, Police Chief W. Wallace Oswald and Town Judge Robert Cook got togeth­er, reopened the case and dis­missed the charges against Isaac Woodard,” Mayor Lancer Shull says. “Although Sgt. Woodard died in 1992 and has no direct descen­dants, we want­ed to do some­thing to make it right. As right as it can be.”

It is more jus­tice than Woodard ever got in life. After his beat­ing, Batesburg’s munic­i­pal court sen­tenced Woodard to 30 days in jail and fined him $50 before Police Chief Lynwood Shull (no rela­tion to the cur­rent may­or) hur­ried­ly deliv­ered him to a vet­er­ans hos­pi­tal in Columbia.

His fam­i­ly found him three weeks lat­er, blind and suf­fer­ing from par­tial amne­sia. Woodard’s wife left him, unwill­ing to face a life as care­giv­er. Woodard’s par­ents took him to New York.

Because South Carolina offi­cials refused to pros­e­cute the chief, Truman ordered the Justice Department to charge Shull with vio­lat­ing Woodard’s civ­il rights.

Charleston Judge Waties Waring presided over that case and, like Truman, was appalled by Shull’s inevitable acquit­tal. It drove the judge into civ­il rights advo­ca­cy, cul­mi­nat­ing in a plot that even­tu­al­ly forced the U.S. Supreme Court to deseg­re­gate pub­lic schools in Brown v. Board of Education.

Ted Luckadoo, town man­ag­er of Batesburg-Leesville, says the com­mu­ni­ty has been talk­ing about the sig­nif­i­cance of Woodard’s sto­ry to the his­to­ry of the civ­il rights move­ment, most peo­ple amazed to learn that such a hor­rif­ic inci­dent occurred on their streets. On Saturday, the town, which is 35 miles west of Columbia, will join with vet­er­ans groups to ded­i­cate a his­tor­i­cal mark­er to the “Blinding of Isaac Woodard” on the site of the old jail, which is now an emp­ty lot.

Don North, a for­mer Army major and mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an, led the charge to erect the mark­er along with help from U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, who’s just pub­lished a book about the Woodard case, “Unexampled Courage.” The state approved the word­ing of the mark­er, and the town signed on as a spon­sor.

We jumped at the chance to be a part of this,” Luckadoo says. “It’s time to right the wrong and com­mem­o­rate the progress that result­ed from this.”

The pres­i­dent of the Disabled American Veterans will attend the cer­e­mo­ny, and says oth­er vets from around the coun­try will take part. The town bought a plane tick­et for Woodard’s nephew, who cared for his uncle, to come from New York.

Judge Gergel, who often pre­sides from the same bench where Waring once held court, says he’s been amazed by the thought­ful and empa­thet­ic reac­tion of the town. “They just thought it was the right thing to do, and every­thing they’ve done has been exem­plary,” Gergel says. “You nev­er know how good peo­ple can be.”

No, but Batesburg-Leesville is set­ting an exam­ple for the rest of the coun­try.