Crime & Courts

“His eyes were blinded so we could see.” SC monument dedicated to Isaac Woodard

Angela Easterling sings ‘Isaac Woodard’s Eyes’ in honor of new civil rights plaque

Singer/songwriter Angela Easterling performed at a plaque unveiling ceremony in honor of Isaac Woodard, a black soldier who was beaten and blinded by a white police chief in Batesburg-Leesville.
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Singer/songwriter Angela Easterling performed at a plaque unveiling ceremony in honor of Isaac Woodard, a black soldier who was beaten and blinded by a white police chief in Batesburg-Leesville.

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,

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.

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof.

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