26-year-old Isaac Woodard had been in the Army for more than three years. He had served in the Pacific theatre in a labor battalion as a longshoreman and was promoted to sergeant. He had earned a battle star for his Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal by unloading ships while under fire in New Guinea, and had also received the Good Conduct Medal and the Service medal as well as the World War II Victory Medal.
On the 12th of February, 1946, he was travelling back home to Winnsboro, North Carolina, after being honorably discharged from the Army. Isaac had been looking forward to reuniting with his wife. Unbeknownst to Isaac, he would never see his wife again.
While on the bus, he asked the bus driver for a bathroom break just outside Aiken, South Carolina. The bus driver was rude to Isaac, who politely asked him: “Talk to me like I’m talking to you. I’m a man just like you.” When they stopped at Woodard, the bus driver called police. He claimed that Isaac had been drunk and took too much time to use the “colored only” toilet.
When they arrived, Isaac, who was still wearing his Army uniform, professed that he had done nothing wrong. Isaac was not a drinker and had not been rude to the bus driver, he simply asked to relieve himself and asked for the bus driver to treat him like a human being.1
Isaac was beaten and arrested by Sheriff Lynwood Shull. Back at the station, Sheriff Shull unleashed a brutal and prolonged attack on Isaac. Over the course of the night, he was beaten and jabbed in the eyes with a billy club, leaving Isaac fully blind. The following morning, Isaac was found guilty of drunk and disorderly conduct and fined fifty dollars. He requested medical assistance but it took two days for a doctor to finally be sent to him. In addition to being blind and severely beaten, Isaac was suffering from amnesia.
Isaac would end up at a hospital in Aiken and wouldn’t be found by his family for another three weeks. He was then taken to an Army hospital in Spartanburg where he regained his memory. Sadly, nothing could be done for his eyes; he was left permanently blind. His wife would leave him as she was unwilling to become his caregiver.
The senseless attack would garner national attention and would be instrumental in President Harry Truman forming a Council on Civil Rights and integrate the military in 1948. While Isaac had served in the Army, he had not been allowed to fight during the war because of the colour of his skin. President Truamn also ordered a federal investigation. Sheriff Shull would be charged with violating Isaac’s civil rights and his trial would be overseen by President Truman.
During opening statements, Attorney Claud Sapp mispronounced Isaac’s name and then rested after just an hour and 25 minutes. He had failed to call a number of witnesses, including Jennings Stroud, a white soldier who had witnesses the beginning of the attack after Isaac stepped off the bus. Attorney Sapp did not object when the defence had argued that Isaac belonged to “an inferior race that the South had always protected.” Nor did he object when the defence suggested that Isaac must have been drinking because “that’s not the talk of a sober nigger in South Carolina.”2
In fact, during closing statements, Attorney Sapp had even said that the government would be satisfied with “whatever verdict you gentlemen bring in.” Unsurprisingly, Sheriff Shull would be acquitted by an all-white jury.
Much like President Truman, Charleston Judge Waties Waring, who had presided over the case, was horrified by the acquittal and it would drive him to become a civil rights advocate. In fact, his advocacy would force the U.S. Supreme Court to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education.3
After the attack, Isaac Woodard went back home to New York with his parents where he spent the remainder of his life until he passed away in 1992 at the age of 73. He had struggled financially and had to lived on a partial disability payment because the Veterans Administration had classified his blindness as nonservice related until the 1960s when Congress awarded full benefits to soldiers who were injured between the time of their discharge and their arrival home.
In 2019, Batesburg-Leesville honored the memory of Isaac. His family a well as distinguished guests gathered for the unveiling of the “Blinding of Isaac Woodard” historical marker which was located at the site of the old police station where the beating occurred. His nephew, Robert Young, said that Isaac very rarely spoke about the incident: “You’ll always be an inspiration to many around the nation. But most of all, you will always be my uncle.”4
- The Dallas Morning News, 17 August, 1986 – “Tarnished History of Black Military Experience Explored”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 17 February, 2019 – “Injustice is Blind”
- The Post and Courier, 8 February, 2019 – “A Cop Gouged Out a Black Vet’s Eyes”
- Associated Press, 9 February, 2019 – “SC Town Honors Black WWII Vet”