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More Fact History for Black History Month

By Beverly Gadson-Birch

If you read last week’s article, I promised to share more fact history from “The Afro-American in United States History” but I feel an urgency to expound on an recent article by Brian Hicks, Post Courier Columnist, on Sgt. Isaac Woodard—a deceased and decorated Army vet. I had to admit, I had never heard of Woodard’s story. I applaud Brian Hicks for his on-point commentaries and always keeping it real. Hicks’ commentary appeared  a day before the town of Batesburg-Leesville honored Woodard’s memory with the unveiling of a “historical marker”.

After reading Hick’s Commentary, I decided to do a little research of my own. I wanted to check further into this little known “fact history”. Like most stories on slavery, lynching, et. al, they really elevate your pressure. You rationalize how a human being could mutilate another human being without giving it a second thought. Woodard was a decorated veteran who boarded a Greyhound bus, dressed in uniform, headed home eager to see his wife and family. He simply asked the bus driver to stop so he could use the restroom. As the story goes, Woodard is accused of drunken and disorderly conduct. When the bus pulled into Batesburg, Woodard was pulled from the bus by Sheriff Shull and beaten mercilessly. The Sheriff gouged his eyes out with his baton and threw him in jail without medical assistance. The horrendous act is what made history. Read the story for yourself!

One of the reasons slave masters did not want their slaves to learn how to read and write is they did not want them to learn the “truth”. Slave masters did not want slaves to know “truth”. It’s the “truth” of slavery that makes your hair stand up on your head.  And, that practice has not really disappeared, it still exists in the two-tier educational system in Charleston County Schools and across this country. As in the Dred Scott’s case, southern whites refused to accept the fact that slaves were or could ever be citizens. They were treated like chattels–less than human beings. Although Woodard was a free man, that’s not how Sheriff Shull saw him. It didn’t matter that Woodard was a decorated veteran. All he saw was a “nigger” in a uniform who “thought he was somebody”.

Woodard’s story started me thinking about other unknown stories of blacks whose stories have never been told. I can only imagine their horrendous sufferings. Woodard’s wife left him because she did not want the responsibility of taking care of him. His mother took him to New York where she and a nephew took care of him. Woodard’s life was forever changed and so were his caretakers. And, in the end, all the the town of Batesburg-Leesville thought of was a “historical marker” and a “ticket” for the nephew to attend the unveiling ceremony. Woodward was around 26 years old when the incident happened. He lived another 46 years.  Forty-six years of people taking care of him—being his eyes. What about his mother’s life of service to him? How do you compensate the family for putting their lives on hold?

Some twenty speakers spoke at the unveiling ceremony of Woodard’s blinding “as the good that flowed from it—the good that helped dismantle segregation nationwide”. Did y’all say “the good”? Give me a break!!  Tell Woodard that! Tell his mother that! Tell his nephew that! What a price to pay! Woodard was good enough to serve his country, only to return to be disrespected and rejected as a human being. The life that he afforded others, through his decorated service, was denied him through disservice.

I can’t speak for the Woodard family but here is my take on this. Batesburg-Leesville, y’all keep your marker! Make sure you tell Woodard’s story from now on in your schools and do not leave out Sheriff Shull. And, make sure you make retribution to the Woodard’s family. And, to Mayor Shull who denies no relationship to Sheriff Shull, the perpetrator of such a vicious crime, I find your nonexistence kinship hard to believe in such a small town; but, if I were in your shoes, I would deny him as well. For the past two days after learning about this story, every time I closed my eyes, all I could see were the hollow sockets of Woodard’s eyes.

Woodard’s story will live on forever in my heart. I will share it every opportunity I get. And, I hope y’all will do the same. Thanks again Brian Hicks for sharing such a painful but factual account of history during Black History.

2 Comments

  1. Dr. Truth on February 26, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    The mayor of Batesburg-Leesville was born and raised in Missouri. Perhaps you should do more fact checking and less hate spewing.

  2. Andrew Myers on February 27, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    I agree with “Dr. Truth” that the author of this article needs to pay closer attention to her facts. The idea for the historical highway marker originated six years ago with a U.S. Army veteran named Don North, who went to considerable effort to coordinate the sign through the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. He then raised more than two thousand dollars to purchase it. He took this task upon himself and received no compensation. In addition to making inaccurate and unkind generalizations about the mayor of Batesburg-Leesville, Ms. Gadson-Birch fails to give Major North the credit he deserves.

    Her disparaging remarks about the “some twenty speakers” at the dedication are also inaccurate and overgeneralized. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to find something positive amidst a tragedy, not all of the speakers did so. In fact, one of the speakers was Isaac Woodard’s nephew Robert Young. He did not characterize the blinding as “good,” but he did seem pleased and moved that his uncle was being recognized by the town of Batesburg-Leesville and by the large crowd that attended the dedication. Those remarks have been available online for the past several weeks at the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5HO55J6o5U.

    Although Ms. Gadson-Birch may have been ignorant of the Woodard case, the story is hardly “little known.” Richard Dalfiume wrote about it in his 1969 book Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces as did Bernard Nalty in his 1989 Strength for the Fight. In addition to telling the story, John Egerton included photographs of the blinded veteran in his 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day. Kari Frederickson wrote an article about Woodard for the South Carolina Historical Magazine during 1997, and I did the same for the 2004 Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association. I also spoke about Woodard in Charleston at The Citadel Conference on Civil Rights during 2003. In my 2006 book Black, White, and Olive Drab: Racial Integration at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, during the Civil Rights Movement, I recounted Woodard’s story as well as those of numerous other African American veterans who suffered unjust treatment upon their return from wartime service. Both Brian Hicks and Richard Gergel have published books about the blinding within the past year.

    If readers of the Chronicle want to learn more about the Woodard case, I suggest that they read Damon Fordham’s article that was published on February 26, 2019. Professor Fordham has written several informative, well-researched books about African Americans in South Carolina. His work is far better than what Ms. Gadson-Birch has written.

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