Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
“The Witness” is a short story about a man who is a victim of and witness to a crime. He must flee and the crime must go unreported. This story is of one person and one incident but is also the story of American race relations. Wheeling, New York, is seeking an English teacher and needs an African American to demonstrate that the schools are integrated. Charles Woodruff, a retired English professor from Virginia College for Negroes and a recent widower, is hired. Looking to change his environment, Charles decides to integrate Wheeling after he hears the school board is looking for “one” African American.
Charles accepts an invitation extended by the Congregational minister to help a group of delinquent boys. Charles is frustrated by his failure to reach the boys but is not surprised. He feels he is viewed differently from other blacks. Charles believes he is being assigned the role of the model, or exemplary, black man.
Following a class with the boys, Charles tries to intervene when the boys assault a white girl but is himself assaulted. The boys kidnap Charles and the girl. When Charles refuses to “take his turn” with the girl, the boys throw Woodruff, his keys, glasses, and wallet from the car. As they drive off with the girl unconscious on the floor of the car, they taunt Charles that he is their only witness. The boys and Charles believe that because he is a black male he will be implicated in the crime.
Charles realizes he is not the perfect “one” African American for Wheeling, New York. There is no perfect “one.” Charles must remain silent and flee Wheeling. As Charles drives away, he realizes that he is a “hot ho-daddy,” what the boys called him during the assault. Charles realizes that that is all he will ever be in the eyes of America. Woodruff is not the exception, not different, not the “one.”
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Charles Woodruff, who retired as professor of English from Virginia College for Negroes, was sixty-five when his beloved wife Addie died. His wife’s death has made him reluctant to pursue his former plans to spend his retirement as a homebody, so he has accepted an offer from Dr. Shipley, a Congregational minister, to work with seven troubled teens. The sole black in the white picket-fence community of Wheeling, New York, Woodruff does not enjoy his customary, exemplary success with students. After witnessing several unnerving sessions between these bright, demented young men and the authority figures they despise and antagonize (Dr. Shipley and himself), Woodruff impulsively questions their harassment of young Nellie after class. Immediately recognizing the inevitable danger to himself, and keenly aware of his well-founded fear of this devious gang, he instantaneously regrets his effort to intervene, leading as it horrifically does to their assaulting, abducting, and grossly humiliating him, as well. They imprison him in his expensive new coat, wreck his glasses, demobilize him as an auditory witness to their horrendous gang rape of Nellie, and incriminate him by forcing his imprint on Nellie’s thigh after she loses consciousness. They leave Nellie in the freezing cold despite his feeble protestations, rob him, and leave him virtually incapacitated—he can hardly breathe or see, and his hands go numb as he searches for the car keys they threw at his head but which dropped in the deep snow. He realizes that as a black man, he is at the mercy of these violent youths, who degradingly address him as “ho’ daddy,” simply because they are white. He immediately leaves town, rationalizing his abandonment of the nightmare and of its primary victim, Nellie, as he speeds away.