DancersThe Orisirisi African Folklore group performs Feb. 21 at Fort Jackson's African American and Black History Month celebration. (Photo Credit: Alexandra Shea)

By Alexandra Shea

Fort Jackson Leader

Fort Jackson celebrated African American and Black History Month at the NCO Club Feb. 21. Attendees listened to stories of past civil rights movement figures in the Low Country that helped secure equality, rights and respect for not only local African Americans but those living across the United States as well.

Roughly 400 people attended the observance, one of the largest in Fort Jackson's history.

Entertainment during the lunch included a drum and song performance by the Orisirisi African Folklore group. The group spoke of the history of drums to create music. One song told the story of how man created beats by hitting a piece of hollowed-out wood to create music and another told the story of kindness, hope and respect for one another that had attendees on their feet singing and dancing along.

As guests finished their meals, Dr. Bobby Donaldson, associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina, was introduced as the guest speaker.

"There is, for us, a story to tell, a history to document," Donaldson said. "There is a story to tell about a young man who entered the military on Oct. 14, 1942 at 23 years old. A young man who did his training at Fort Jackson and served with honor and distinction in the Pacific Theater."

Donaldson shared the story of Sgt. Issack Woodard. Woodard was a decorated World War II veteran who was honorably discharged from the Army on Feb. 12, 1946. As he was traveling home on a bus in his service uniform, he was physically assaulted by South Carolina police officers. The beating Woodard endured left him permanently blind.

As news of Woodard's beating, injuries and blinding spread, national public outrage helped cement the civil rights movement.

"Imagine that," Donaldson said. "You have served with distinction in World War II and on the very day you are discharged, you encounter a battle yet again."

As Donaldson spoke of Woodard and a recent memorial erected in his honor, Donaldson called attention to a special guest in the audience, Robert Young. Young is Woodard's nephew and a Vietnam-era veteran who was drafted and completed a 32-year Army career as a Reserve Soldier.

"I remember (as a child) one night he came to our house in his service uniform," Young said. "I didn't know him but everyone was so happy so I went and grabbed his left leg because I was happy to. I didn't see him much until after he was blinded. My mother went to pick him up from the VA hospital in Columbia and moved him to live with us in New York. Growing up I was his right hand. Whatever he had to do, I did it."

While the beating Woodard endured would take his vision, it would help forge a bond between he and his nephew that would extend beyond the role as caretaker, they were brothers-in-arms - family.

"What I learned in the military for my first two years made me want to stay," Young said. "I enjoyed the military and I stayed."

Even though Young was drafted during the Vietnam War, he never served in the country. Due to the length of his contract, he didn't have enough time after receiving his training to deploy. He instead served his time with an aviation unit at Fort Rucker, Alabama. While there not only did he endured the intense summer heat, he also endured racism from fellow Soldiers.

"It wasn't them, it was from their teachings ... their parents," Young said. "Parents teach hatred. Children aren't born with it, their parents teach it. Those that I met, their parents taught them that they shouldn't be in the same mess hall or barracks as us. I didn't blame them, I blame their parents."

While Young and Woodard endured violence and discrimination along with many other African Americans, their story is told to remember the struggles of those who fought for equal rights and respect of their fellow man.

Donaldson said by recounting the stories of those who fought for equal rights supports the observance's theme to honor the past and secure the future. Young said it was important to understand the struggles of the past to prevent future generations from making the same mistakes.

As the luncheon concluded, Donaldson was presented with a framed poster of the 2020 African American Black History Month Observance in thanks for serving as guest speaker for this year's observance luncheon.

The poster was presented by 165th Infantry Brigade Commander Col. Eric Flesch and Command Sgt. Maj. Roosevelt Whetstone.

"Today we pick up the mantle and move forward," Donaldson said. "It is our duty, it is our sacred obligation to honor these men and women who dared to believe in a better and more perfect union. Who worked to defend one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all."