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SC town pays tribute to black WWII veteran blinded by police

Augusta Chronicle - 2/10/2019

Feb. 10--On Feb. 12, 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard had just received an honorable discharge from Camp Gordon and boarded a bus heading home to North Carolina.

Before the black World War II veteran could arrive, however, he was beaten and blinded in a racist attack by police in Batesburg, S.C., that historians say played a significant role in undoing segregation in America.

Woodard's attack brought attention to racism in the U.S. and might have influenced President Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the military. The same year Woodard was beaten, Truman created a Commission on Civil Rights, and in 1948 he issued an executive order to end segregation in the military.

On Saturday, almost 73 years to the day after the incident, the town of Batesburg-Leesville honored Woodard and unveiled a marker paying homage to him and soldiers who have been blinded. To recognize those veterans, the back of the marker is in Braille.

Don North, the president of the Sgt. Isaac Woodard Historical Marker Association, began raising funds for the marker more than a year ago. After assistance from Disabled American Veterans and the town of Batesburg-Leesville, the $2,000 was raised and the marker was installed at the site of the bus depot where Woodard was attacked.

North, who refers to himself as a layman historian, said the ceremony is just one phase of an ongoing project to honor Woodard. He said he is working on a documentary about Woodard and will begin petitioning for a postal stamp with Woodard's likeness.

"We're one army now," North said. "It all goes back to Woodard."

North said he wants to involve the public in his journey to honor Woodard.

"We want to get everyone to be a part of it, whether they're black, white, we don't care because we feel that integration is part of America," North said.

About 100 guests attended the ceremony, including Donald Day, the national vice president of Disabled American Veterans, and federal Judge Richard Gergel, the author of the book "Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring."

"We cannot right the wrong, but what we can do is acknowledge it and resolve to do better," Gergel said.

Robert Young, Woodard's nephew and caretaker, flew from New York to attend the ceremony. He said he hopes his uncle's tragedy is a lesson for the town.

"For the people in this community, it will become like a lesson that they have never known, and when their parents see it they may be able to tell them this story," Young said.

After Woodard's attack, he was arrested and held in jail. Batesburg-Leesville recently expunged his arrest record.

Along with its connection to Truman, the beating of Woodard also has ties to the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared "separate but equal" schools unconstitutional.

Federal Judge Julius Waties Waring presided over Shull's case, and when the police chief was found not guilty, the judge began exploring issues of race and justice.

"He had a change of heart after witnessing this trial," said Andrew Meyers, a professor of American studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate. "He came from a very old Charleston family and was someone you'd think would be a segregationist, and he was very moved by what had happened with Isaac Woodard."

In a dissenting opinion in a case in Clarendon County, S.C, in 1951, Waring was the first judge to use language declaring the separation of races unequal. The Brown case was heard in 1954, and the ruling echoed Waring's opinion.

The case also has connections to Aiken. After the beating, famous actor/director Orson Welles read Woodard's case over the radio for ABC News. However, he mistakenly reported that the incident occurred in Aiken, prompting the city to ban Welles' movies from theaters.

Meyers, the author of an article entitled "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard" and an Army veteran, said the attack on Woodard should be recognized for its historical significance.

"It was an incident involving two people and it resonated nationally to have important consequences in the history of our country and I think for that reason the marker should be there," Meyers said.

Batesburg-Leesville city Councilman Steve Cain said the town was supportive of the marker dedication, and he hopes the town embraces its history and grows from its mistakes.

"You can't run from race issues; you can't run from your past," Cain said. "You embrace it, you move on, and Batesburg is a lot better and a different town than it was in the past."

Cain said he's hopeful that people will see the marker and talk about the incident so that history does not repeat itself.

"I think it's a very important and very significant incident in the civil rights movement and it's something that happened in town, we're not afraid of it, it happened, we recognize that it happened, and I hope that there's some healing with the marker," Cain said.


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