Unlike some towns that try to forget their ugly past, Batesburg-Leesville will unveil a memorial Saturday to one of the more brutal acts of the Jim Crow era — the 1946 beating and blinding of a uniformed black Army veteran by the town’s white police chief.
The reason for the plaque, honoring African-American Sgt. Isaac Woodard, is to speak truth about a horrific event, in part, town officials say. But, they add, it also is to show that from tragedy can come change.
“In order for healing to happen, these things have to be acknowledged. You can’t sweep things under the carpet and not expect there to be a bump,” said Lancer Shull, mayor of Batesburg-Leesville, a town of 5,000 in western Lexington County.
After Woodard, a 26-year-old veteran of combat in the Pacific, was hauled off a Greyhound bus and savagely beaten by Batesburg’s then-police chief, two men in positions of power took action to begin to change the nation’s laws on race.
One was J. Waties Waring, a Charleston-based federal judge who wrote a court decision that helped lead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to outlaw public school segregation. The other was President Harry Truman, who issued an order to desegregate the nation’s military.
The Batesburg-Leesville plaque will let people know that Woodard’s blinding helped trigger major changes in America’s racial caste system, town officials say.
“The good overpowers the bad, every time,” Shull said. “When a horrible event ends up bringing desegregation to the military and supporting some of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement, there’s no reason to not acknowledge it.
“Sergeant Woodard’s sacrifice ended up sparking all this and making things better for the whole country.”
‘People really didn’t pass that down’
For more than 70 years, the role of Woodard’s beating in bringing change often was not spoken about.
“People really didn’t pass that down,” said Batesburg-Leesville town manager Ted Luckadoo, who grew up in the Lexington community.
But sleuthing by Richard Gergel, a federal judge in Charleston, brought the event to the attention of town officials two years ago. Gergel had become obsessed with finding out what made Waring, a white who grew up in Charleston, begin to recognize the evils of segregation.
At that time, Gergel was five years into his research on what would become his just-published book, “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.”
Gergel, known for his in-depth investigations into legal cases, had sent town officials a Freedom of Information request, asking for documents that would show the dates and charges against Woodard.
“It was kind of weird for a judge to send a Freedom of Information request ... asking for a conviction record from 1946,” recalled Batesburg-Leesville town attorney Chris Spradley.
The FOI was on regular stationery and didn’t note Gergel was a federal judge. However, Spradley recognized the judge’s name.
He said he called Gergel, telling him, “You don’t have to send us a FOI. All you have to do is ask us, and we’ll send you whatever you want. He said, ‘Well, I was trying to do it under the radar. It was something personal I’d been working on.’ ”
Gergel came to town to get a copy of Woodard’s conviction and struck up a friendship with town officials. That resulted — after numerous conversations and meetings — in town officials deciding to put up a plaque to honor Woodard and to memorialize the actions of Waring and Truman.
Also, last summer, the town reopened Woodard’s criminal case and dismissed the charges against him. “We wanted to do something to make it right — as right as it can be,” Mayor Shull said in an announcement on the town’s website.
‘Hate never wins’
Gergel’s book lays out his thesis that Waring and Truman were shocked enough by Woodard’s beating and blinding to take drastic action that led to historic change.
Waring’s consciousness was raised because he was the presiding judge in the trial of Batesburg-Leesville police chief Lynwood Shull — no relation to the current mayor — for blinding Woodard, who died in 1992. After Shull was found innocent, Waring was outraged, Gergel writes.
The NAACP brought Woodard’s blinding to Truman’s attention. Truman began the process of establishing the first presidential committee on civil rights. Its findings resulted in Truman’s “historic executive order in July 1948 ending segregation in the armed forces,” Gergel writes in his book.
Over seven years, Gergel and his wife, Belinda, a historian in her own right, researched thousands of documents and uncovered never-before-seen letters and other documents.
The book has created something of a sensation, and Gergel has spoken in various places — New York, Washington, Columbia, Charleston — about it.
Saturday, however, he is scheduled to speak in Batesburg-Leesville at the plaque dedication.
For years, Gergel has been fascinated by Waring and his role in what became the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 famous school desegregation decision.
Gergel began to focus on what, specifically, had changed Waring from a segregationist to a judge issuing landmark civil rights opinions. Waring’s explanation to reporters at the time was a bland.
“ ’While on the bench, I developed a passion for justice.’ He would say that repeatedly,” Gergel said.
“I set about trying to find what gave him that passion for justice, and that’s my book,” Gergel said. “Then as I went, I had the remarkable discovery that Harry Truman was similarly influenced.”
Gergel’s research took him into FBI, Justice Department, Truman, National Archives and NAACP records. Many of the old records “were loaded with dynamite,” said Gergel, including the revelation that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a spy in the Justice Department monitoring how Woodard’s case was prosecuted.
“Richard did an unbelievable job — documenting every single thing he wrote about,” said U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson of Columbia, a longtime Gergel friend. “It’s an important reminder of how things used to be and, hopefully, how far we’ve come.”
Said Mayor Shull, “Hate never wins. It may have a lot of power in the moment. But over time, it does not win. This is an example of that.”
If you want to go
A ceremony unveiling a plaque to Sgt. Isaac Woodard will take place from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday in downtown Batesburg-Leesville at the corner of West Church and Fulmer streets.