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.