Batesburg-Leesville dedicates historical marker on cold, cloudy winter day
Batesburg-Leesville, SC (Paul Kirby) – On Saturday, February 9, a large crowd gathered in Batesburg to remember, honor, and dedicate a marker intended as a memorial to Sgt. Isaac Woodard. I had written about Sgt. Woodard several weeks ago, about the injustice he faced at the hands of a white Batesburg police chief at the end of the Second World War. I had written about the injustice he had suffered in federal court when that same white police chief was acquitted by an all-white southern jury of violating Sgt. Woodard’s civil rights after that police chief gouged both of Woodard’s eyes out permanently blinding him because he dared defend his right to ask a white bus driver to pull to the side of the road so he could relieve himself. (See Associated Article Here) I went Saturday to see the people, the marker; how much more could be said?
Saturday was cold and overcast. Although the thermometer showed it was in the upper 40’s, the wind made it feel as if it were in the upper 20’s. I had received an invitation to the VIP event inside Southern Occasions, and I had dutifully sent my RSVP. I was “on the list” and could have easily ducked inside the hall and gotten in the area where some later said it got almost too warm. Instead, because it was a fairly long walk around the block, I stayed outside with all the people that didn’t score an invite. The town had done their part. They had set up two very good speakers so that you could hear the speeches just as you would have if you were inside. The entire street was blocked so that there was no traffic to dodge. They simply couldn’t control the wind, the cold wind that whipped down the street that had us all shivering.
As speeches go, Saturday’s were good. There were historians, veterans, a preacher, and Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr., the current commander at Ft. Jackson in Columbia. Beagle is from South Carolina, is an African American, and gave one of the most poignant speeches I’ve heard in a long time. He talked about what he wished he could show Sgt. Woodard if he were alive today and could regain his sight for just a short while. He said he’d show him signs of a fully integrated Army. He’d point out a cluster of buildings named for a black World War I hero. He said he’d show him the field where thousands of troops have graduated side-by-side over the years with people of all genders and races. A rainbow of colors all equal under God and under command of the same commander and chief marching past the reviewing stands. Most importantly, he’d show the sergeant the Fort’s headquarters with his name hanging under the sign that displayed the title, “Commanding General.” It was very moving, and you could almost see the sergeant’s face as he looked around the fort in awe.
As I looked on the street around me while they spoke, you could see people of every color, size, and shape, but really you just saw people. Old men in hats that signified to the world they were veterans; not black veterans or white veterans, just veterans. They were proud men, not because of the color of their skin, but because they had taken up arms for our country. There were children and of course mothers trying to make children be still during the long speeches. Certainly, this task transcends all boundaries. Others like me huddled in doorways just looking for a way to get out of the wind.
When it was over, the group from inside came out and they too braced against the wind and cold. There was a sea of people. They began where Woodard was forced off that bus more than 70 years ago and they marched to the site of the marker draped in all black. There was a duet that opened the ceremony; A man who played a guitar and a woman who sang with a beautiful voice an original song about that day. Of course, there were a few more speeches, and proclamations from the US House, counties, and other formalities. What’s left of Woodard’s family was given these. Eventually, tired feet and the cold forced all the speech making to come to a close, and a group gathered around the monument to remove its black shroud. When that came off, a polite round of applause rose from the group as the last few words were said.
At the beginning of the morning, we had started by hearing stories that took us back to the Batesburg-Leesville of the 1940s. A town where races didn’t mix at school, at a diner, a bathroom, not anywhere. By the time we left, somehow seventy years had passed, and I saw the Batesburg-Leesville of today. A town with people of every color shopping in the stores, enjoying the food, strolling along the streets, and yes, even serving on the police department as officers. The marker Saturday was not to atone, no it was to recognize how far we all have come. It was a reminder for our children not to ever slip backward so that we treat any people or group as less worthy because of the color of the skin. It really wasn’t a black and white thing, it was a right and wrong thing. I’m proud the town saw fit to have it installed. It was just the right thing to do.
You can see the marker at the intersection of Fulmer Street and West Church Street in Batesburg.