Leesburg’s legacy

Girls held in stockade amid civil rights protests in 1963 went on to make their mark in world
Young women are held in the Leesburg Stockade after being arrested for demonstrating in Americus in 1963. They have no beds or sanitary facilities. From left: Melinda Jones Williams (13), Laura Ruff Saunders (13), Mattie Crittenden Reese, Pearl Brown, Carol Barner Seay (12), Annie Ragin Laster (14), Willie Smith Davis (15), Shirley Green (age 14, later Dr. Shirley Green-Reese), and Billie Jo Thornton Allen (13). Sitting on the floor: Verna Hollis (15).

Young women are held in the Leesburg Stockade after being arrested for demonstrating in Americus in 1963. They have no beds or sanitary facilities. From left: Melinda Jones Williams (13), Laura Ruff Saunders (13), Mattie Crittenden Reese, Pearl Brown, Carol Barner Seay (12), Annie Ragin Laster (14), Willie Smith Davis (15), Shirley Green (age 14, later Dr. Shirley Green-Reese), and Billie Jo Thornton Allen (13). Sitting on the floor: Verna Hollis (15).

It would be easy to drive right by the Lee County Stockade. The decrepit white concrete building sits in the shadow of a school bus depot and looks like the kind of place that long ago outlived its purpose. On a breezy, overcast day in mid-January, Shirley Green Reese, dressed in a white pantsuit and silver accessories, stood at the stockade door, directing a stream of reporters, filmmakers and locals to step inside.

She began describing the early morning hours of July 1963 when she and a wagonload of at least 14 other girls ranging in age from 12 to 15 were dropped at the jail more than 20 miles from their homes. They had been arrested just a day earlier during a nonviolent civil rights protest at a movie theater in Americus. Holed up in the stockade for weeks, they waited and wondered if their efforts would have an impact.

“I feel very honored that we can share the story and that some people are excited about it and are accepting of it,” Reese said. “Some can’t believe it happened in 1963, and some still have questions about it.”

Known as the Girls of Leesburg Stockade, their story has been shared by news outlets and in books, films and lectures for the past several decades, but to most Americans, including many residents in the southwest Georgia counties where the events took place, the women are largely unknown. They had joined the movement to be seen as Americans with the full force of civil rights, and like many other young protesters of the era, the details of their stories were subsumed by the larger narrative of the civil rights movement.

In 2015 Reese and the nine living Leesburg women collectively broke their silence about the time they spent in the Leesburg Stockade.

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Now their memories have worn thin. Some of the women recall details that the others do not, and there are disputes about who was actually jailed in the stockade and for how long. But what the girls from Leesburg Stockade now collectively possess that they did not in the past is the desire for their efforts to be seen, heard and understood.

The stockade is now owned by the local school district. There is talk of preserving the building as a historic landmark. Last year, students at the high school worked to have the girls of Leesburg recognized on a historical marker. The marker, in partnership with the Georgia Historical Society, will be dedicated later this year to commemorate the spirit and sacrifice the girls showed during the summer of 1963.

The young seek a role

The road to the Leesburg Stockade began miles away and years before the girls were locked up.

A nascent civil rights effort had been brewing in that pocket of southwest Georgia as the 1950s gave way to the turbulent ’60s. It centered around Albany, and by 1962 had made its way to Americus, 38 miles north.

Children were encouraged to be part of the movement, as they had been in Albany and in Birmingham. It was a controversial tactic, but one that became a signature of the resistance. If a town could lock up its black children to avoid integration, what would it do to their parents?

“Around April of ’63 is when we started asking the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers, ‘When are we going to go and test these places and restaurants to serve us?’” said Sam Mahone, one of the early leaders of the Americus-Sumter County Movement. “At first, SNCC didn’t think Americus was ready, but the students didn’t want to wait.”

After a series of mass meetings were held at local black churches to energize the crowds, direct action protests began. The first target was the town’s segregated movie theater.

Having slipped away from home on a Saturday afternoon while her parents were downtown, Reese and her best friend Mae Smith-Davis decided to attend the mass meeting at Friendship Baptist Church. When they arrived, the group was already planning to go to Martin Theater.

The pastor and SNCC workers gave them instructions. Don’t talk to anybody. Follow everyone closely. They joined the line and marched toward downtown.

Law enforcement in Americus responded with brute force: water hoses, cattle prods, nightsticks. They arrested protesters by the scores. Some were adults, but the overwhelming number of those taken into custody were teenagers, some as young as 12. When the city jail filled, surrounding counties offered space. Boys and girls were separated, although they were often held in the same building.

‘No swinging doors in Leesburg’

As the protests continued, the stockade in Leesburg filled with girls.

Paddywagons brought them to the stockade, a remote, low-slung structure surrounded by woods and bordered on one side by a lonely stretch of country road.

The building was by then a relic, gloomy and filthy. Bars covered the windows, but much of the glass was broken, giving easy access to bugs. The stockade’s sole toilet would not flush. There was no soap. Water from the shower head trickled in a thin stream. Day in and day out, the girls were fed either scrambled egg sandwiches or four rare hamburgers a day.

Some of the girls were ill and afraid.

The Lee County Stockade is a decrepit white concrete building that now sits in the shadow of a school bus depot. 

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Lulu Westbrook Griffin, 69, had joined the group of protesters at the church knowing she would likely end up in jail, but she wasn’t prepared for the trauma she would feel.

“We weren’t used to going off and staying overnight anywhere,” said Griffin, who was 12 at the time. “We went to church, to school. We didn’t even walk out of the house without our parents’ permission.”

Though she was in the company of other girls, Griffin said the experience left her with bouts of crying and nightmares that would persist well into adulthood. She had joined the movement to feel empowered, but her one act of protest left her feeling weak.

Diane Bowens’ activism had been brewing long before she attended the protest at the theater. By then, she was fully invested in the movement. In the stockade, her commitment didn’t waver, said Bowens, then 13. “If you were going to be a part of it, you were going to be a part of it,” she said. “There were no swinging doors in Leesburg.”

Outside world takes notice

As the days turned into weeks, other girls arrived, a signal to the ones already there that the protests continued back in Americus, 27 miles north. But here, the story of the girls of Leesburg Stockade gets muddled. Some reports have said there were more than 30 girls at the stockade arriving and leaving between mid-July and mid-September, but the only visual evidence of girls being held in the stockade, an image shot by a SNCC photographer, pictures 15 girls. Some girls, those from wealthier families in town, have said their parents paid a fee and got them out before the others.

SNCC kept tabs on what counties the children were taken to and where they were being kept, but they didn’t always have names for every child, especially if the child gave a false name. Which is what Carolyn DeLoatch did.

DeLoatch, then 15, had begged her parents to let her get involved in the movement and they’d relented, telling her she could go to mass meetings but to not intentionally get arrested. But there DeLoatch was in August, locked up.

Their days in the stockade were filled with talking, sleeping, praying, singing and wondering when they’d go home, DeLoatch, now 70, said. The monotony was about as intolerable as the food. But by being in Leesburg, she felt she was doing something important.

“It was bearable because it was all of us together,” DeLoatch said. “We were all demonstrating and we wanted people to know that we wanted to be free.”

After several days, her father paid a fine, possibly $45, she said, and she was brought back to Americus. Her father told her he was proud of her, she said, but within three days, her parents shipped her off to a South Carolina boarding school for black girls.

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Reese was still in the stockade when Danny Lyon, a young white photographer for SNCC, showed up. Though their parents had come to look in on them and pass fresh clothing and food through the bars, they didn’t have the means or influence to get them out. “Nobody had any rights. Who were they going to go to?” said Reese.

It was mid-to-late August and the girls pressed their faces against the bars staring at Lyon and stretching their arms through the panes framed with broken glass. He lifted his Nikon and started shooting. “I remember touching them through the bars and we said ‘Freedom’ — that was a code word for the civil rights movement,” Lyon said. “The fact that someone from the outside world was there was incredible to them.”

His visit lasted less than 15 minutes, he thinks, but it resulted in the only known images of the girls and the conditions in which they were being held. Not long after the pictures appeared in the black press, the girls were released. It would be the last time for several decades many of them would acknowledge their connection to the Leesburg Stockade.

Readjusting to their lives

On their return to Americus, the girls were dropped right back into their lives.

“I just remember being happy to get out of there,” Bowens said. Though her arrival home was celebrated, Bowens grappled with her feelings. Her mom pressed to know if anyone had sexually assaulted the girls. Her brother threatened to hurt anyone who had, though no one did.

“I just closed off that part of my life,” said Bowens, 69, who would go outside and sit under the house for hours crying. “Just knowing that someone would treat you like that and do that to you. I was feeling sad. I felt like, Is this it? Is this all there is to life?”

As they journeyed from teens to young women, many of the Leesburg girls’ worlds spread beyond the confines of southwest Georgia to New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and beyond. The 15 girls captured in Lyon’s now famous photo would go on to become pastors, civil servants, educators, authors and public speakers.

When Bowens met her husband, she began to feel better. He had been in the movement as well, and they would talk about all the things that happened in Americus. Raising her four children and building a long career as an inspector in the automotive industry changed her outlook, but Bowens still feels sad sometimes. “Things are better now, but basically things are still the same,” she said.

School had been in session for weeks when Reese walked into Sumter High after her release from the stockade. “Not even the teachers asked where I was coming from,” Reese said. “My grades started falling.”

Reese began diving into extracurricular activities — choir, dance, basketball — to keep her mind off those weeks during the summer. “When I first got out, I didn’t feel whole,” she said. She fed off the energy of close friends who were talented, had a positive attitude and were accepting of her.

After high school, her mother sent her to Savannah to live with her aunts. Reese enrolled in Savannah State University and embarked on an educational journey — ultimately earning a doctorate in philosophy from Florida State University — that would bring her some measure of solace and success. She went on to become the first black female athletic director in the state of Georgia.

Shirley Green Reese holds a photograph of her inside the Leesburg Stockade building, where 15 girls ages 12-15, including her, were arrested and illegally held for more than two months in 1963 after a peaceful civil rights march in Americus. Reese has dedicated herself to sharing the story of the girls of Leesburg Stockade. 

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“I pushed the stockade out of my mind because I had to get an education. That is what my parents had pushed all our lives,” she said.

Though she spent less time in the stockade, DeLoatch was nonetheless marked by the experience. For her, it was an “awakening.” Before Leesburg, she was sheltered by her educator parents, her father a school principal and her mother a librarian in Americus’ segregated school system. They were part of the town’s tiny black middle class.

Leesburg and the Americus movement taught DeLoatch that civil rights would only come with a sustained fight. She went from being voted “most civic minded” at her boarding school to later participating in the Poor People’s Campaign while a college student at Virginia Union in Richmond, she said. Eventually she became a city planner in Chicago and the mother of two. She watched with pride as her son decided to register to vote as soon as he turned 18: no literacy test to pass; no poll tax to pay.

“There was no problem,” DeLoatch said.

Making their voices heard

Leesburg was a moment in DeLoatch’s life but not the only important one.

“I moved on but I used that to help me become the person I am: the kind of person who doesn’t let anybody push them around; the kind of person who is secure in my personhood,” she said.

But the impacts of childhood trauma can linger, said Vincent Willis, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Alabama. Willis is writing the book “Audacious Agitation,” on the experiences of student protesters in southwest Georgia during the civil rights movement. He’s including a chapter on the larger Americus movement and has interviewed some of the women who were jailed in the stockade as girls, he said.

“That 14-year-old girl is still in there somewhere,” Willis said. “The idea that time heals all wounds, I argue against it. They’re told to get over it, that the battle was won, but there are always lingering effects. There’s always psychological damage.”

Griffin was first among the girls of Leesburg Stockade to share her story on a national platform. In 1996, she saw a book, “Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,” with the photographs Lyon had taken at the stockade. “The pictures had no names. I thought, wow, I need to put a name to these faces,” said Griffin, a retired educator.

She would later write a book and hold speaking engagements at schools. When she began planning a documentary, which premiered in Americus in 2003, she contacted some of the other women, she said. Some of them were still reluctant to speak out about the past, fearing repercussion from locals. A few years later, in 2006, a reporter from Essence magazine wrote a story, and some of the women who had previously been reluctant began to speak out.

Reese returned to Americus for good in 2002. She got involved with local civic organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Americus-Sumter County and the City Council. “I felt I needed to get back in there and help the kids move forward so they would not have to go through what we went through,” Reese said. For years, she had suppressed her feelings about the stockade, but since returning to Americus, she has vowed to keep telling their story.

“We as a people don’t want to address something like this because they feel like things are better now. But we can’t let them forget the past,” Reese said. “Even if they don’t care, I care.”