Saturday, February 13, 2010

13 February: The Beating of Isaac Woodard (1946)

[Image description: black-and-white photo of Isaac Woodard, seated, wearing a uniform and large round sunglasses. A woman is standing next to the chair, with her arm behind Woodard.]

What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina it cost a man his eyes.

--Orson Welles, in a September 1946 radio broadast

On this date in 1946, Isaac Woodard (1919-1992) was on a long bus ride from Georgia, returning to his family in North Carolina. Woodard was African-American, and grew up in the South, but he was also in uniform, freshly discharged from the US Army with medals earned for his wartime service. Surely, he could use the next rest stop without any fuss?

The driver allowed him to do that; but the driver also contacted police, who took Woodard off the bus at the next stop in Batesburg, South Carolina. After being removed from the bus, Sgt. Woodard was beaten with nightsticks and taken to the town jail. The next morning, Woodard woke up blind. Both of his eyes had been irreparably damaged in a beating that he didn't remember clearly. He was released from jail, brain-injured and blind, and received no medical care for at least two days after the event. His family reported him missing after three weeks; only then was he identified and moved to an Army hospital for care.

Woodard's story was publicized by the NAACP; Orson Welles called for the punishment of the policemen involved; a federal case was brought, but the chief of police was cleared of all charges. Although he was not blinded during his war service, the Blinded Veterans Association made an exception in his case, and welcomed him as a member. Woodard moved to New York after he recovered, and died in a military hospital there in 1992.

The abuse faced by Woodard and other returning soldiers was part of President Truman's reason for issuing Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Woody Guthrie wrote the song "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard" to retell the story in ballad form at a concert in support of Woodard held in New York City in 1946 (also featuring Cab Calloway, Billie Holliday, Milton Berle, and Orson Welles).

Want to teach about the Woodard case? Documents related to his story are collected online here, courtesy of Andrew H. Myers, for classroom use.

Further reading:

Robert F. Jefferson, "'Enabled Courage': Race, Disability, and Black World War II Veterans in Postwar America," The Historian 65(5)(2003): 1102-1124.

Kari Frederickson, "'The Slowest State' and 'Most Backward Community': Racial Violence in South Carolina and Federal Civil-Rights Legislation, 1946-1948," South Carolina Historical Magazine 98(2)(1997): 177-202.


Mark said...

I hope we, as a nation, will NEVER forget Mr. Woodard's sacrifice... hopefully the enemy he faced at home has been extinguished forever.

Mark said...

Let's end all racism now (LEARN) by learning to co-exist...dedicated to Isaac Woodard and other humanitarians.

Mark said...

to listen to Orson Welle's original broadcasts about Mr. Woodard, courtesy of