“Wash your Hands, Officer X”[1]

There is perhaps no more apposite moment to remember the story of Isaac Woodard, Jr.  (1919-1992) than the one we find ourselves in now. In the midst of a devastating pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the Black and disabled population in the United States, waves of protests against systemic racism, police violence, and the carceral state have erupted across the country and the world. The corporeal consequences of these forces for Black people have historically been both significant and tangible. As Woodard’s life demonstrates so vividly.

Born after the end of the First World War on a farm in Fairfield County, South Carolina, Isaac Woodard, Jr. came from a family of landless sharecroppers. Woodard worked hard manual jobs from a very young age to support his family, as did his siblings. In 1942, he joined the army and served in the Pacific theatre of the war. He won promotions and earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal as well as a battle star for unloading ships under enemy fire.

The black and white photo shows a densely forested jungle, and in the center of the photo are three African American soldiers carrying rifles and packs.

Woodard was one among thousands of African-Americans who served in the US Army in various capacities in the Second World War, like these soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division shown here advancing through the jungle, on patrol in Japanese territory off the Numa-Numa Trail. These soldiers were among the first Black foot soldiers to go into action in the South Pacific theater. May 1, 1944. Source: National Archives.

At 8:30 pm on the 12th of February 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard, Jr. was honorably discharged from Camp Gordon, Georgia. Still in uniform, the veteran bought a ticket to take him from Augusta, Georgia to Winnsboro, South Carolina, where he intended to reunite with his wife Rosa Scruggs and travel with her to New York. Between Augusta and Aiken, Woodard asked the driver, Alton Blackwell, permission to be let off the Greyhound bus, which was mostly full of veterans returning home, to use the rest room at a stop.[2] The driver would later claim that Woodard was drinking, was “disruptive” and used “profane” language. In a statement, Woodard himself described the moments that led to his blinding:

“…I asked him if he had time to wait for me until I could go to the rest room. He cursed me and said ‘No’ and I cursed him back. Then he told me, ‘Go ahead and get off and hurry back.’ And I did. When the bus got to Aiken, S.C, about a half an hour later, he stopped again, and got off an went and got the police. He came back and told me to come outside for a minute and I did. As I walked out, the driver started to tell the police that I was the one who was disturbing the bus. But when I started to explain, they wouldn’t let me.” [3]

Blackwell brought over the chief of Batesburg police Lynwood L. Shull and officer Elliot Long to deal with the “disruptive” Woodard. When Woodard exited the bus, the two police officers confronted him and beat him across the head with a blackjack. After this first blow to the head, Shull arrested Woodard and marched him off to the town jail. When Woodard allegedly failed to call Shull “sir,” the violence escalated and Shull struck Woodard forcefully and repeatedly with the butt end of his nightstick, several times about the head and then directly into his eye sockets.[4] Woodard was left semi-conscious in a cell, bleeding and incapacitated by this beating, mere hours after his discharge from the army. Woodard also received no medical attention that night. The next day, when he was asked to step out of the jail cell, Woodard told the police officer that he was “unable to see to come out, (he) was blind.”[5]

The image shows a photograph of Isaac Woodard, with his eyes swollen shut and bruised.
Photograph of Isaac Woodard with his eyes swollen shut as a result of the aggravated assault and blinding. This photograph was distributed for a November 1946 speaking tour by Woodard and Thurgood Marshall. Source: Wikipedia.

That same day, Woodard was then brought up on charges of being drunk and disorderly before a South Carolina court. Given the extent of his injuries, there was absolutely no way that either the judge, H.E. Quarles (who was also the mayor), or other people in the court could miss the physical evidence of the fact that Woodard had been brutally beaten. Both his eyes were swollen and bloody. Woodard was unable to see, although Quarles and Shull would both deny this in later accounts. Instead of mentioning his injuries, the judge told Woodard: “You were raising sand on the bus last night, stubborn. I fine you $50 or 30 days in jail.”[6] Woodard only had $44 on him and was taken back to the jail. Eventually, someone poured “some medicine” into his eyes, and placed a hot towel on his head. Woodard was then taken to the VA hospital in Columbia, SC.

“Officer X will never pay for the two eyes he beat out of the soldier’s head.”[7]

At the VA, the attending physician, Captain Arthur Clancy, catalogued the corporeal consequences of the violence Woodard had experienced at the hands of the police. Both of his eyelids were bruised, swollen and hemorrhaging substantially, his right cornea was severely lacerated. Later, Clancy would confirm that Woodard’s vision was “nil” and that there was no treatment for him. The injured veteran was now permanently disabled. The injuries were so extensive that it raised questions about Shull’s subsequent claims that he had only struck Woodard once with the nightstick. Put simply, there was no way a single blow could cause this much damage to both eyes. Indeed, the beating and resulting injuries were also serious enough that Woodard remained in hospital for two months.

In the months after the incident, Shull never denied the beating, but told varying accounts about the intensity, location and motives behind the beatings. Eventually, Shull was charged with the violation of Woodard’s “right to be secure in his person and immune from legal assault and battery” as well as the “the right and privilege not to be beaten and tortured by persons exercising the authority to arrest.”[8] The all-white jury took exactly 28 minutes to acquit Lynwood Lanier Shull and the crowded courtroom erupted in cheers.[9] Lawyers for Woodard later sought damages from the Greyhound bus company, but the jury ruled against him.[10]

Orson Welles discussed the Woodard case in detail in his broadcasts, and in return the city of Aiken banned his movies and burned the posters in the streets. They also hanged Welles in effigy and threatened to sue him for the sum of two million dollars. Listen to the first of Welles’ impassioned commentary on the Woodard case here (the video includes embedded transcript), on July 28, 1946.

As important as the event of his blinding was to US history, for the disability historian, it is equally important to understand how he experienced his disability in the years following his blinding. Woodard lived with constant and chronic pain after he was discharged from the hospital, and told his mother, “My head feels like it’s going to burst [and] my eyes ache.”[11] While soldiers blinded in the war received financial supports and rehabilitation, Woodard’s case was different: he was disabled after his discharge. The army denied him a full disability pension for 15 years after his blinding, on technical grounds. It argued that his disability had not been incurred in service. He struggled with independence and mobility, and his mother once lamented that Woodard would have been better able to cope had he lost an arm or leg.[12] Interviewed after moving back to New York, he told the New York Amsterdam News, “I want to have someplace where I can make a living…where I can work and own my way and not have to have someone else care for me and pay my bills.” He wanted to open up a restaurant, and be independent, but he also spoke of his desire for justice:

“I’m going to fight this thing through to the finish…The way I feel now, I could back down there and clean out the whole place. But I know the NAACP is right. We’ll fight them through the law-and I believe we’ll win.”[13]

A few years after this interview and the trial of Shull, though, he was reported to be making a living renting out rooms in his Bronx house and by making leather bags, a trade that he had acquired in a school for the blind.[14] A year later, he wrote a letter to the VA, stating that he was unable to support himself on his monthly pension $60, and that “it is winter, and I don’t own an overcoat.”[15] His pension was subsequently doubled. He lived a quiet life in the Bronx with his family, and was profiled in Jet in 1956, when he told the magazine: “I make out all right, but I just can’t see.”[16] A social worker’s assessment of Woodard in 1964 revealed both how he had adapted to his disability by seeking meaning and connection in caring for his family but also how the trauma of his blinding had endured and continued to elicit a “strong emotional response.” [17] Isaac Woodard Jr. died at the age of 73 on September 23, 1992. Woodard’s criminal conviction remained on the record until 2018, when it was finally expunged.

Why does Isaac Woodard’s story matter today? Woodard’s case was only one among the many Black World War II veterans who confronted old hatreds and explosive violence when they returned to the US after serving their country. In July 1944, Booker T. Spicely, an African American private was shot and killed by a bus driver in the town of Durham, NC, when he refused to give up his seat to a white passenger. In Alexandria, LA, a Black military policeman was killed by state patrolmen; and despite interventions by then Secretary of War Stimson, the state of Louisiana refused to prosecute the officers involved.[18] Many others were murdered at the hands of all-white mobs, which often included law-enforcement officials. Historians are trained to situate the past in its own context, but it is truly disconcerting how many parallels we find between the beating and blinding of Isaac Woodard, Jr, and the stories of George Floyd and Sandra Bland, among too many others.

Listen to Orson Welles’ third Broadcast on the Woodard case,
where he comments on the surveillance state and the police, May 22, 1955

There are also parallels in the ways the same disabling incident was reported, by witnesses and by newspapers at the time. For example, in later investigations of the incident, Lincoln Miller, a Black soldier sitting on the same bus, gave the FBI an affidavit affirming that he seen one of the officers “pull a blackjack out of his pocket and hit Woodard over the head with it.” On the other hand, a white soldier and passenger on the same bus, Jennings Stroud told the FBI that the police officer “hit the colored fellow a fairly good lick which did not knock him down, but seemed to show the colored fellow [his] authority.”[19]  African American newspapers reported the case very differently from mainstream media. They used blunt and forceful language: the Chicago Defender went with the headline “Southern Bestiality” and described the case as “the worst for sheer bestiality and insane race hate that has come to our attention in years.”[20] Unlike mainstream news, African American newspapers also used the active voice in reporting the violence: for instance, the New York Amsterdam News had the secondary headline: “Story How SC Cops Gouged Out His (Woodard’s) Eyes.”[21]

As with this current moment, there was ample public interest in the case, especially on the part of prominent (and vocal) politicians and celebrities. Woodard’s blinding had captured the imagination of the nation, and his story was told and re-told in newspapers, music and radio. Joe Louis, the professional boxer, was especially moved by the case and made a rare public speech at Lewisohn Stadium to protest the beating of Isaac Woodard Jr.: “Nobody in America should have to go through second class citizenship. Me and a whole lot of Black guys went out fighting for the American cause, now we’re gonna have to get America to give us our civil rights too. We earned them.”[22]  Orson Welles discussed the case in a series of impassioned broadcasts. In one of these he addressed Lynwood Shull directly: “Officer X. I’m taking to you…Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash them well. Scrub and scour, you won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran. Nor yet the color of your skin.” Woody Guthrie would write the “Ballad of Isaac Woodard,” inspired by the story. Fund-raising efforts organized by the NAACP, which had taken up the case with vigor, provided a small pension for Woodard.[23]

Photographs of Woodard’s swollen eyes and his gradual adaptation to his blindness circulated in print media. These photographs, ironically enough, became visible symbols of the fruits of racial injustice, and underlined that even veterans of the Second World War were not immune to the violence simmering beneath the surface in post-War American society. Woodard’s case was cited in hearings before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 1948.[24] Calypso singer Lord Invader sang about Isaac Woodard in the poignant God Made Us All, singing these lyrics:

“Some lose their life,
Some lose their hand,
We fought gallantly for the United States
…I don’t see why we can’t have our equal rights,
For God Made Us All and in him we trust,
Nobody in the world is better than us.”

Listen to Lord Invader’s song “God Made Us All” here

The NAACP held public meetings to raise awareness about the case and to restore full pension benefits for Woodard.[25] His blinding became one of the inspirations for the eventual desegregation of the US army, and you can listen to President Truman tell the story of Woodard here:

For me, Isaac Woodard’s story reveals how the body can hold, communicate and produce trauma, and how racism and ableism are both experienced through and by the body. But Woodard’s story is so much more than that: his blinding illuminates the ways in which systemic racism itself produces and reproduces disabilities. It is an undeniable illustration of how race can determine whether you are likely to become disabled the way Woodard did. Further, Woodard’s life demonstrates the sustained perpetuation of state-sanctioned and state-protected violence against Black bodies; a continuation of the violence inflicted on enslaved people. Most of all, Isaac Woodard’s story only reinforces the fact that there can be no disability justice without racial justice.

Aparna Nair is currently Assistant Professor at the History of Science department at the University of Oklahoma. Her work examines disability, race and biomedicine in British India as well as epilepsy, personhood, and passing in modern India. She can be reached at aparna.nair@ou.edu.


Notes

Header image: Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. with his mother in 1946. Source: Special Collections and Archives/Georgia State University Library

[1] Orson Welles Commentary: Affidavit of Isaac Woodard (July 28, 1946)

[2] 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: Sarah Crichton Books, 13-14. Subsequent investigations and interviews of other passengers on the bus offered conflicting accounts regarding Woodard’s behavior on the bus.

[3] Nora Holt, “Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” New York Amsterdam News, 7 August 1946, 9.

[4] Gergel, Unexampled Courage, 15. Shull’s later testimony of the beating and the incident would vary, in one interview with FBI agents, he stated that he had struck Woodard after walking some distance from the bus stop, in response to Woodard’s reluctance to continue walking with him to the city jail.

[5] Holt, “Blinding of Isaac Woodard,”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Orson Welles Commentary: Affidavit of Isaac Woodard (July 28, 1946)

[8] National Archives, 40019790, Department of Justice Press Release, 9/26/1946.

[9] Walter Francis White, A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1995), 327; Atlanta Daily World, 2 August 1951, 3; Gergel, Unexampled Courage. Shull returned to Batesburg, and continued to work in various elected offices until his retirement. Gergel rightly pointed out that Shull’s involvement in the beating of Woodard was not mentioned in any of the public coverage of his life after the case ended. Shull died in his 90s, and was fondly remembered as a devout and kindly usher at the local Methodist church.

[10] White, A Man Called White, 327.

[11] New York Amsterdam News, August 3, 1946; Chicago Defender, July 27, 1946.

[12] Amsterdam News, Aug. 3, 1946; Chicago Defender, July 27, 1946.

[13] Constance Curtis, “Isaac Woodard is Dreaming of Justice and Independence,” New York Amsterdam News, 10 August 1946, 4.

[14] ‘Isaac Woodard Arrested in New York,” The Chicago Defender, 4 August 1951, 2.

[15] Gergel, Unexampled Courage, 170.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 171.

[18] “Bradly Orders Woodard Quiz: VA Mum on Official Action in Beating,” The Chicago Defender, 3 August 1946, 12.

[19] Gergel, Unexampled Courage.

[20] “Southern Bestiality,” The Chicago Defender, 20th July 1946: 14.

[21] Nora Holt, “Blinding of Isaac Woodard,” New York Amsterdam News, 7 August 1946, 9.

[22] Jet, July 13, 1978, 54.

[23] 20,000 RAISE A FUND FOR BLINDED VETERAN, New York Times, 19 Aug 1946: 20.

[24] “Universal Military Training: Hearings Before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, Eightieth Congress, Second Session, on Mar. 17, 18, 22-25, 29-31, Apr. 1-3, 1948

[25] Gergel, Unexampled Courage.

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