An Account of the Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard by the Police Officer, Lynwood Shull

A Decorated WWII Veteran Returns to the Jim Crow South

After striking Woodard in the head, Shull placed the sergeant under arrest and began escorting him to the town jail several blocks away. To secure him, Shull twisted Woodard’s arm behind his back and pushed him down one of Batesburg’s main streets, Railroad Avenue, and then right onto Granite Street to the jail. Shull left his other officer, Elliot Long, to question the supposedly drunk and disorderly white passenger, whom the driver was never able to reliably identify.

As the police chief and the soldier proceeded toward the town jail and out of sight, Woodard reported that Shull asked him whether he was discharged from the army. Woodard said that when he replied “yes,” Shull immediately struck him again on the head with the blackjack. The correct answer, Shull informed the soldier, was “yes, sir.” Woodard responded by grabbing the blackjack from Shull and wrenching it away. At that moment, in Woodard’s telling, Officer Long appeared with his gun drawn. Drop your weapon, he told Woodard—or “I will drop you.”

Woodard reported that when he complied with Long’s directive and allowed the blackjack to fall to the ground, Shull retrieved it and began to angrily beat him in the head and face. Woodard stated that he lost consciousness and lay on the ground for an unknown period of time. When he came to, Shull instructed him to stand up. As Woodard struggled to his feet, he reported, Shull struck him violently and repeatedly in one eye, and then the other, with the end of the blackjack, driving the baton “into my eyeballs.” The force used by Shull was so great that it broke his blackjack. Woodard stated he was then dragged into the town jail and placed in a cell, where he was the only prisoner present. Shortly thereafter, Shull and Long left for the evening, with Woodard in a semiconscious haze.

In his various statements and trial testimony, Shull denied beating Woodard repeatedly with his blackjack or driving the end of the weapon into his eyes but offered varied accounts regarding the number of times he struck him, the location where the strikes occurred, and the circumstances leading to the use of the blackjack. When first confronted about the incident by an Associated Press reporter, Shull stated that the soldier attempted to take his blackjack and he “cracked him across the head.” In his initial FBI interview, Shull claimed that he “bumped” Woodard with the baton after he refused to continue walking to the city jail. He claimed that after this “bump” with the blackjack, Woodard tried to wrench the weapon from his hand and, in self-defense, he struck Woodard a single time in the face with the blackjack.

Later, Shull stated that while they were walking to the jail, Woodard “suddenly grabbed” the blackjack without any provocation, and he struck Woodard with the weapon once in self-defense. When confronted with these inconsistencies under cross-examination, Shull admitted he might have struck Woodard with his blackjack on three occasions: at the bus stop, while walking to the jail, and when Woodard attempted to take the blackjack from him.

Woodard said that when he replied “yes,” Shull immediately struck him again on the head with the blackjack. The correct answer, Shull informed the soldier, was “yes, sir.”

Shull denied that he beat Woodard into unconsciousness and left him dazed in the town jail overnight. Instead, he claimed that after striking Woodard with his blackjack one time outside the jail, he was able to move the soldier into a cell without further incident. He stated that Woodard voiced no complaints that evening about his eyes and was in good health when Shull left the jail. He also denied that Officer Long was present for any of his altercation with Woodard, which Long affirmed.

When Woodard woke the next morning, he could not see. He had been awakened by Shull, who informed him he was due in city court that morning. This presented several practical problems. Woodard reported he was unable to see and needed assistance to move from one place to another. Further, the brutal beating of the night before had left his face covered with dried blood, which he could not see or remove without help. Shull led Woodard to the sink and cleaned him up for his court appearance. Then, said Woodard, Shull guided him to the city court to face a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct.

Woodard’s case was called by the Batesburg town judge, H. E. Quarles, who also served as the town’s mayor. Woodard attempted to explain to the judge the circumstances that had led to his conflict with the bus driver and with Chief Shull. Shull stepped in to inform Quarles that Woodard had attempted to take his blackjack on the way to the jail. Quarles responded by stating that “we don’t have that kind of stuff down here” and promptly found Woodard guilty. Woodard was given a fine of $50.00 or “30 days hard labor on the road.” He attempted to locate the money to pay the fine but had only $44.00 in cash and a check from the army for mustering-out pay of $694.73. According to Woodard, he wanted to endorse the check to pay the fine but was incapable of doing so because “I had never tried to sign my name without seeing.” The judge ultimately agreed to suspend the balance of the fine and accept payment of $44.00.

Shull’s account of the morning differed. He denied that Woodard said he could not see, although one eye appeared “swelled practically shut” and the other was “puffed.” He claimed Woodard was able to negotiate himself over to the city court without assistance and could see sufficiently to count out the money in his pocket. According to Shull, when his case was called, Woodard stated he was guilty and “guessed he had too much to drink.” Judge Quarles would later testify that Woodard was able to see while in the city court that morning and that he pleaded guilty to the charge of drunk and disorderly conduct. Later medical evaluations of Woodard’s eye injuries made Shull’s and Quarles’s claims that Woodard could see that morning implausible if not medically impossible.

With his court hearing completed and having paid the fine, Woodard was free to go. But according to Woodard, he was blind and incapable of navigating independently. He returned to the jail to lie down on a cot, telling Shull he felt ill. Shull attempted to locate the town physician, W. W. King, to see Woodard but was told the doctor was on a house call. Confronted with a prisoner who claimed he could not see as a result of traumatic injuries, and unable to obtain the assistance of a physician, Shull seemed at a loss for what to do next. One account had him repeatedly pouring water on Woodard’s eyes and asking after each application, “Can you see yet?” Shull testified he went to the town pharmacist for advice and was told to apply eyewash and warm towels until King arrived. He followed this advice, but Woodard did not improve.

Clancy observed that both of Woodard’s eyelids were black and blue and swollen, and there was massive hemorrhaging inside each eye.

King showed up later that afternoon. He found both of Woodard’s eyes “badly swollen,” and when he opened the lids, “there was an escape of bloody fluid.” Although he prepared no medical record of his examination, he later testified that Woodard’s injuries were confined exclusively to his eyes, with swelling only over the eyelids and nose. He concluded that Woodard “had serious damage to both eyes” and “was badly in need of a specialist.” He recommended that Shull immediately transport Woodard to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Columbia, some 30 miles away. In compliance with King’s instructions, Shull loaded Woodard into the town’s police vehicle and drove him to the VA Hospital, telling the on-call physician that evening that Woodard had suffered his injuries as a result of an encounter with a police officer after being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct.

Woodard was initially evaluated by the medical officer on duty, Major Albert Eaddy, who had trained as a psychiatrist. Eaddy immediately appreciated that Woodard’s condition was wholly beyond his expertise. Because the VA Hospital had no eye specialist, he summoned the ear, nose, and throat specialist, Captain Arthur Clancy, to Woodard’s bedside. Clancy observed that both of Woodard’s eyelids were black and blue and swollen, and there was massive hemorrhaging inside each eye. He was then able to determine that Woodard’s right cornea was lacerated. He did not note any other injuries that were visible in that initial examination. He would later diagnose Woodard with a rupture of his right globe and massive intraocular hemorrhaging to both eyes. He also indicated that Woodard’s remaining vision was “nil” and that there was no available treatment for his condition.

Woodard was seen the following morning, February 14, by Dr. Mortimer Burger, an internist, who conducted a full physical examination. Burger documented a history of Woodard’s having been beaten on the head by a police officer and knocked unconscious. He noted that Woodard’s eyelids were moderately swollen and tender, with a thick coat of pus and bloody material. When he pulled back the soldier’s eyelids, he observed hemorrhaging of the eyeballs. He also documented the presence of dried blood over Woodard’s right ear and swelling on the forehead and on the upper portions of his cheek. He noted that there was swelling over the nose but no gross deformities; a skull X-ray confirmed the absence of any fracture to the nose. Thus, Burger’s initial examination suggested that Woodard had suffered facial and head trauma greater than would be expected from a single strike by a blackjack. Because Woodard had bilateral blindness and lacked any fracture of the facial or nasal bones, a fair question was how Woodard could have been blinded in both eyes from a single strike of a blackjack.

Woodard remained at the VA Hospital for the next two months and was treated with antibiotics and other medications related to the traumatic injuries to his eyes. There was no treatment offered or recommended that would restore his vision. Upon his discharge on April 13, Woodard was diagnosed with bilateral phthisis bulbi “secondary to trauma,” which meant he had two shrunken, nonfunctioning eyes as a result of his encounter in Batesburg. The VA physicians determined that he was totally and permanently blind, unable to discern light sufficiently to tell when a 60-watt bulb was on or off. Woodard’s discharging doctors offered him no hope for future treatment and could only recommend that he attend a school for the blind.

While Woodard was hospitalized, VA staff applied for VA disability benefits on his behalf. But there was a major complication: Woodard had been discharged around 5 pm from Camp Gordon, Georgia, approximately five hours before suffering his disabling injury. Although he was still in uniform and had not yet reached home, VA rules at the time disqualified him from full benefits and limited him to partial disability benefits of $50 per month. (This denial of full pension benefits would later become highly controversial but would not be rectified for more than 15 years, when Congress finally amended the law to allow full service-related disability for a soldier who suffered a disabling injury while traveling home after discharge from the military.)

As Woodard convalesced in the VA Hospital, his wife, Rosa, then living in Winnsboro, showed little interest in continuing their relationship. According to a Woodard family member, Rosa did not look forward to a future life with a disabled husband. Like many southern black families, Woodard’s parents and siblings had moved north during the war in search of greater economic opportunities, and the entire family now resided together in New York City. When Woodard was finally discharged from the hospital, two of his sisters traveled to South Carolina to gather up their blinded brother and bring him to the new family home at 1100 Franklin Avenue in the Bronx.

Life was a struggle for Woodard. He complained to his mother, “My head feels like it’s going to burst [and] my eyes ache.” He fumbled around the home, having no training for independent living as a blind person. His mother prayed nightly for some relief for her son, lamenting that a loss of a leg or arm would have been less devastating than the loss of sight.

The Woodard family resolved to seek specialized evaluation and treatment in the newly emerging field of ophthalmology to determine if there was any potential treatment for Isaac. Dr. Chester Chinn, America’s first African American ophthalmologist, examined Woodard in his Manhattan office on April 25, 1946. He determined that the structural injuries to Woodard’s eyes were more extensive than diagnosed by the VA physicians, finding that Woodard had suffered traumatic ruptures of both globes. This made any prospect for recovery essentially nonexistent. Chinn also diagnosed Woodard with “bilateral phthisis bulbi of traumatic origin” and rated his prognosis “hopeless.” For Sergeant Isaac Woodard, now twenty-seven, blinded, unemployed, abandoned by his wife, and limited to a VA pension below subsistence level, “hopeless” might have seemed an apt prognosis of his life ahead.


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Excerpted from UNEXAMPLED COURAGE: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring by Richard Gergel. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 22nd 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Gergel. All rights reserved.

Richard Gergel
Richard Gergel
Richard Gergel is a United States district judge who presides in the same courthouse in Charleston, South Carolina, where Judge Waring once served. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Judge Gergel earned undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University. With his wife, Dr. Belinda Gergel, he is the author of In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia, South Carolina. His book Unexampled Courage:The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring is available now.

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