It was 13-year-old Shirley Green’s first civil rights demonstration. She went to the protest without her parents’ knowledge, figuring she could make it back home before they did. She was wrong.
Some stories from the Civil Rights movement we know by heart. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Dr. King’s March on Washington. Selma’s Bloody Sunday. And the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. But until recently, one story remained hidden, rarely spoken of even by those who lived it. It’s the story of the Leesburg Stockade Girls, known during America’s Civil Rights movement as the stolen girls of Americus, Georgia.
In the sweltering summer of 1963, more than a dozen young women ranging in age from 12 to 15 defied Georgia’s strict segregation laws when they tried to buy movie tickets at the front entrance of the Martin Theater rather than line up at the back alley’s “Colored” ticket window. They were part of a protest organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in cooperation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The police were called and, in a strategy specifically designed to limit press coverage and break down the ongoing protests, Americus law enforcement arrested the girls and held them indefinitely in jails and holding facilities spread throughout the area. The Leesburg Stockade girls were first taken to the county jail, then loaded into a truck and driven nearly 30 miles away, where they were held from July to September in squalid, unsanitary conditions in the Leesburg Stockade — a dank Civil War-era structure in rural Leesburg, GA, used by the Lee County Department of Public Works.
Although they were only 20 miles from their homes, the Leesburg Stockade girls’ parents had no idea what had become of them, where they were, or how they were being treated. They only learned what had happened to their daughters when the local dogcatcher took it upon himself to visit the families with the news.
One white guard watched over them in the small cement building with no electricity and bars on the windows. There were no beds on which to sleep. An old toilet was rusted out, broken, and filled with feces. Shattered glass from long-broken windows littered the concrete slab floor. And the only running water dripped from a leaky shower head. What little food they had consisted of cold, undercooked hamburgers or egg sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With no toilet tissue, the girls saved the greasy paper in which their meals were wrapped.
The Leesburg Stockade Girls shared the space with mosquitoes and biting gnats, roaches, spiders, cobwebs and, at one point, a diamondback rattlesnake that made its way inside. Every day, the girls lived with the fear that they would be taken out one by one and killed. They slept in shifts because, according to Carol Barner-Seay, “we always watched.”
Throughout their confinement, more girls came and went, joining the original fifteen who were arrested; estimates of the number of young women held at the stockade range from the original 15 to more than 30, making already horrid living conditions even worse.
One of the Leesburg Stockade girls, Verna Hollis, was pregnant at the time, but neither she nor the other girls knew. Looking back, Carol Barner-Seay recalls, “we didn’t know because we were children.” But Hollis couldn’t keep anything down. And fellow prisoner Diane Dorsey-Bowens remembers being concerned: “I was scared Verna was going to die. If she ate at all, it would just come right back up.”
Shirley Green-Reese, who has become the group’s unofficial spokesperson, remembers days when the cell was mostly silent. But at other times the girls would talk about their families, play games, tell jokes, sing freedom songs and organize talent shows because “there wasn’t nothing else to do.”
A month after their arrest, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee got wind of children being held in jail. Twenty-one-year-old Danny Lyon, a photographer for SNCC whose roommate was John Lewis, was tasked with finding them. He traveled more than two hours from Atlanta to Americus, GA, for a meeting at a local funeral home. At the time, the only Black people with real power in the community were ministers and morticians, probably because white people didn’t want to bury Black people. It was there he learned that most of the high school girls had already been held in the stockade for weeks without any charges filed against them.
As Lyon thought about how he could help, a young boy of about 15 offered to drive him to the stockade. Lyon would hide in the back of the car while the boy, who barely knew how to drive, drove. He explained there was an old guard there called Pops. He would distract Pops while Lyon sneaked around back to take pictures. It was there he found the girls.
As soon as they spotted him, they all jumped up, asking who he was. As Lyon described it in the 1989 book, Everybody Says Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, “here I was, a young, Jewish guy with curly hair, and they took to me right away, reaching through the bars to touch my hand.” He introduced himself and said the word “freedom,” which was the code word for the Civil Rights Movement.
He urged them to form a tight group before Pops noticed. Quick to comply, the girls also showed Lyon how they slept, lying on the floor in their separate areas. He photographed them by the cell bars as they stared into his lens. Ten to 20 minutes and almost two dozen shots later, he had what he needed. Lyon described the time at the stockade as brief, but powerful. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there once I got the pictures to get them developed and away safely.”
He processed the film as soon as he returned to Atlanta, and the SNCC published the photos in its newspaper, The Student Voice. Days later, New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams entered them into the Congressional Record before giving them to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. African American papers across the country were quick to pick up the story, making the girls’ ordeal the focus of national attention. Lyon’s photos were published in the September issue of Jet Magazine, while The Chicago Defender, considered the most influential Black newspaper in the early and mid-20th century, ran the photos under the headline “Kids Sleeping on Jail Floor: Americus Hellhole for Many.” Lyon’s black and white photos documented for America and the world the brutality of Jim Crow in rural Georgia.
Soon after Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, during the same week four precious little girls lost their lives in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September of 1963, Georgia law enforcement released the girls and returned them to their families. Though none of the girls faced criminal charges, some of their parents received a bill charging them $2 for every day their daughters were imprisoned.
It was a Friday when Shirley Green-Reese returned home to her parents. On Monday, she and many of the other girls returned to school as though nothing had happened. No one spoke of their ordeal and none of their classmates asked about their absence. Even Green-Reese’s parents never spoke about it. Today, with the Leesburg Stockade Girls finally able to tell their story, and with a historical marker in front of the old Leesburg Stockade, the pain of being confined to that one-room cell for nearly two months lingers. Green-Reese recalls feeling “hurt inside. I had been damaged. I felt like I wasn’t whole. I didn’t feel like a young girl anymore that had worth. Life just wasn’t the same.”
In a 2019 interview with Florida’s Spectrum Networks Bay News 9, Melinda Jones-Williams described the experience. “When we went in there we were gung-ho. But when we came out, we were pretty broken,” she said.
Sandra Russell-Mansfield, who passed away in 2012 and was only 12 years old when she was arrested, found herself returning again and again to the old Public Works building. “Feel like I’m suffocating when I get in here. It feels like a part of me is still here.” It wasn’t until she took a job in the archives of a library in Savannah, GA, that she saw one of Lyon’s photos of the girls, herself included, behind the stockade bars for the first time. She didn’t share the photo with co-workers because, “I didn’t want them to know I was in that jail.” It wasn’t until 2006 that she and the women who had been imprisoned in 1963 came together to discuss their time there.
But Emmarene Kaigler-Streeter knows what she would tell their jailers today — she feels sorry for them. “They were not looking at us as children. They were not looking in our hearts. All they were looking at was the fact that we were Black.”
The Leesburg Stockade Girls were part of the history of children’s Civil Rights activism of the 1960s — specifically that of African American girls. Now in their sixties, some of the surviving women are telling their story, finally able to embrace their rightful place in history. They want people to know it was the children, some as young as 12, who carried the torch in those early days of Georgia’s Civil Rights Movement. As Sandra Russell-Mansfield said, “they had no fear. The older people had fear. But the children paved the way.”
In 2007, two of those long-ago children, Carol Barner-Seay and the late Sandra Russell-Mansfield, were added to the Hall of Fame of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama. Located at the foot of the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of “Bloody Sunday,” it has been described as the cornerstone of the struggle for voting rights and human dignity.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture publicized the story of the stolen girls in 2016, and they were officially recognized by a resolution of the Georgia State Legislature. Three years later, the Georgia Historical Society erected a historical marker at the stockade, which now sits across the street from the Lee County High School Ninth-Grade Campus, as part of their Civil Rights Trail. And an independent film about the Leesburg Stockade Girls is said to be in production, to be used as a tool to teach a new generation about Black history.
These are the original Stolen Girls of Americus:
Emmarene Kaigler Streeter
Annie Lue Ragans-Laster
Mae Smith Davis
Billie Jo Thornton-Allen