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  • James Houser

February 12, 1946 - The Beating of Isaac Woodard

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Black History Month - February 12, 1946. A decorated war veteran is beaten within an inch of his life by a gang of assailants. At the trial for one of the thugs, he is proclaimed innocent by the jury and the courtroom breaks out in applause. The war veteran's attacker is never punished, and the American soldier lives the rest of his life blind from the attack and permanently disabled.

Of course, the soldier - SGT Isaac Woodard - was an African-American and his attackers were South Carolina cops.

See, this wasn't that long ago. I think sometimes we - us, as Americans - forget how BAD Jim Crow was. It wasn't just drinking fountains and lunch counters. It was daily, violent, virulent racism, backed up by a corrupt justice system and the constant threat of mob violence. Justice was whatever the white supremacist South decided it was.

Case in point:

On February 12, 1946, Isaac Woodard had just been discharged from the Army. He had served in New Guinea under General MacArthur, and had supervised the unloading of cargo ships under enemy fire to receive the battle star on his campaign medal. Discharged from Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, he was traveling home on a Greyhound through South Carolina.

Woodard argued with the bus driver, a white man, to allow him to take a quick rest stop right outside Augusta. On the bus's next stop in Batesville, South Carolina, the bus driver summoned the local police. The white police, led by Chief Lynwood Schull dragged Woodard off the bus and into an alley, where they beat him repeatedly. Then they dragged him to jail for "disorderly conduct." His only crime had been arguing with the bus driver; he was not violent or resistant in any way.

In the jail, Schull and the other cops beat Woodard mercilessly all night - allegedly, because Woodard replied "yes" instead of "yes, sir." By the next morning, he was a wreck. The policemen stabbed him in the eyes with their nightsticks until both globes ruptured in their sockets, permanently blinding the veteran.

Isaac Woodard's condition after the assault

The next morning, Schull and his deputies dragged the untreated Woodard into a courtroom where, without a lawyer or a doctor, he was quickly found guilty. Woodard went two more days without medical assistance. He was dumped in a local hospital and refused adequate treatment. It took his relatives three weeks to track him down, and by the time they found him his eyes were beyond repair.

The NAACP, with the vocal assistance of Orson Welles, raised a public outcry over the mistreatment of Sergeant Woodard. The South Carolina government denied any wrongdoing and dismissed any investigations. Folk songs were written about Woodard, his story became front page in Northern presses, and the NAACP pushed the issue.

News coverage of Woodard's beating was wide.

When President Truman finally got wind of the issue, seven months after the SC government failed to take action, he was furious and demanded a federal indictment be opened - Woodard had first been beaten, after all, on the federal property of the bus stop.

The trial of Chief Schull was one of the great legal scandals of United States history. The jury was all white - black people were still not permitted to serve on juries in South Carolina. The U.S. Attorney interviewed no witnesses except the white bus driver. The defense attorney for Schull repeatedly called Woodard the N-word until stopped by the judge. He informed the jury that "if you convict the chief, South Carolina ought to secede again."

Schull was found not guilty on all charges, even though he admitted in court that he had intentionally blinded Woodard. No matter what the facts of the case, a white policeman would never be convicted for beating a black man in the Jim Crow South. When Schull's acquittal was announced, the entire courtroom applauded.

Chief Schull lived a quiet life after the trial, dying in 1997 without ever experiencing justice for blinding a decorated war veteran whose only guilt was being born the wrong color.

Sergeant Isaac Woodard died in 1992 at 72 in the VA Hospital in New York City. He never regained his sight.

As a result of the Woodard beating and the Schull acquittal, President Truman established the Civil Rights Commission in 1947. Later that year he became the first President to speak at a meeting of the NAACP. Finally, Truman became convinced that Woodard's savage mutilation was a symbol of the poor treatment of African-American veterans - a separate treatment that began in the segregation of the armed forces. Against widespread Southern opposition, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the United States Military in 1948.

Only recently have people come to remember, and understand, the events on that tragic and shameful day in 1946. Last year, in 2019, a marker was finally placed on the spot where SGT Woodard received the blows that would take his vision.

Mayor Lancer Schull, at the dedication of Woodard's historical marker, 2019

For obvious reasons, the bottom half of the monument is written in Braille.

For the Isaac Woodard scandal, see Richard Gergel, Unexampled Courage: the Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, (New York: FSG, 2019). For the Black American military experience in general, there is the always excellent Bernard Nalty's Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).

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