Tears, history and vows to do better mixed Saturday in the small Lexington County town of Batesburg-Leesville, as a plaque was unveiled memorializing the 1946 savage beating and blinding of Isaac Woodard, an African-American combat veteran in uniform, by the town’s white police chief.
Some 20 speakers, from Fort Jackson’s African-American commander, Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, to a Batesburg-Leesville white native who recalled the days when it was a routine Lexington County occurrence to have blacks killed or beaten, talked about Woodard’s blinding as well as the good that flowed from it — good that helped lead to the dismantling of segregation nationwide.
And there was Charleston songwriter Angela Easterling’s folk tune, “Isaac Woodard’s Eyes,” her poignant soprano mingling with notes from a steel-string guitar:
“He helped defend this nation from a fearful enemy,
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Then came home to find he still wasn’t free.”
The ceremony attracted more than 200 people who stayed two hours, inside a small hall that held about 100 and then outside for the plaque’s unveiling in chilly winds under a sky that threatened but never did rain.
“Nobody left, people were captivated,” said Luther Battiste, a Columbia lawyer who stood outside, listening on a loudspeaker with the overflow crowd. He had driven 35 miles with University of South Carolina history professor, Tom Terrell.
“The eyes of the world are upon Batesburg-Leesville today,” said master of ceremonies Bobby Donaldson, director of the University of South Carolina Center for Civil Rights History & Research.
The ceremony had high drama:
▪ Richard Gergel, 64, an S.C. federal judge turned investigative reporter, who wrote a just-published book on Woodard, described how an all-white jury’s quick 1946 acquittal of the police chief who blinded Woodard with his blackjack and nightstick, caused federal Judge Waties Waring, a Charleston descendant of slaveowners, to become a civil rights revolutionary.
That case forced Waring and his wife, Elizabeth “to stare directly into the Southern racial abyss, a view that would forever transform them,” Gergel said. A 1952 opinion by Waring later became the basis for the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling segregation unconstitutional.
▪ Gen. Beagle, 50, told the crowd, that he as an African-American owed his position to the sacrifices of Woodard and people like him.
“If I had 10 minutes with Sgt.Woodard, and if he could have his sight back for those 10 minutes, there are a few things I would show him,” Beagle said.
Those things included showing Fort Jackson’s weekly graduating recruit classes of 1,000. “He could see for himself men, with his own eyes, a fully integrated formation of men, women and a sea of skin tones.” Beagle said.
“In my heart, I believe he would think his sacrifice was worth (it) ... He helped build the bridge that many like me used to cross the river of inequality,” Beagle said.
▪ U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-SC, told the crowd that he and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC, have agreed to work together to get a U.S. postal stamp to honor Woodard.
▪ Dan North, a retired U.S. Army major who has worked for years to get recognition for Woodard, said the sergeant “is not just our hero, he is a hero throughout the nation ... His eyes were blinded so that we could see.”
▪ Andy Duncan, 54, born and raised in Batesburg-Leesville and now an English professor, told how his well-meaning white parents — “good people” — kept him away from blacks his entire youth. ‘I never had a conversation with a black person until my first year at university.”
Duncan said a fellow local told him, “One reason why no one mentioned Isaac Woodard to us when we were growing up was that it was all too routine to mention — that the woods and the fields and the ditches around Batesburg were the sites of worse things.”
“The blinding of Isaac Woodard was a crime. But a far greater crime would be to continue to blind our children and ourselves,” Duncan said.
At the end, Batesburg-Leesville Mayor Lancer Shull gave a hug and apology to Robert Young, of New York City, the 81-year-old nephew of Woodard who had cared for the old blinded ex-sergeant until his death in 1992.
“I say to you, Mr. Young, I am sorry that this happened, and I apologize for this,” Shull said. The mayor said he hadn’t planned to apologize but he asked his daughter, Mina, a ninth grader, if he should.
“She said, ‘I think that would be great.”
And so he did.