Episode 88 The Stolen Girls in the Leesburg Stockade

In the summer of 1963, 15 girls between the ages of 12 and 15 were held in the Leesburg Stockade for the crime of demonstrating for integration in the deep south. For weeks their parents didn’t know where they were or if they were alive.

1963 was a pivotal year in American history. From America’s early involvement in the Vietnam War to the assassination of President Kennedy and the historic Civil Rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

In August 1963, more than 250,000 protestors gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in DC and heard Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.

As Dr. King’s passionate cry for justice echoed across the country, Americans were unaware that 15 children being held in an old civil war stockade in Leesburg, Georgia. 

These girls, between the ages of 12 and 15, were held in the stockade for the crime of demonstrating for integration in the deep south.

For weeks their parents didn’t know where they were or if they were alive.

Girls inside Leesburg Stockade. Pictured: 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 (14), and Billie Jo Thornton Allen (13), Verna Hollis (15). Credit: Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos.

On December 16, 1961 Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for protesting racial segregation in Albany, Georgia. Dr. King ‘s arrest in Sumter County helped galvanize community partnership and organization between local activists, the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to establish the Sumter County Movement. 

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a civil-rights group that worked to give younger Black people a greater voice in the movement. Made up of largely preteen and teenage students, SNCC members passionately and courageously challenged segregation. 

Their tireless work would take its toll on many of them. Some paid the ultimate price. Three members of SNCC were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when they helped organize voter registration drives during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

Many members were beaten and imprisoned. 

As SNCC member, Julian Bond, wrote of those days…

“Black people had no rights that whites felt bound to obey. You expected every outrage, and the worst that could happen, would happen.”


In early 1963 SNCC organizers expanded their work throughout Southwest Georgia and in February began to focus their work in the Sumter County seat of Americus.

The farm town was home to 15,000 people with peanut and pecan processing plants, a railroad, and two separate and distinctly unequal worlds. Americus was typical in its Jim Crow establishment of segregated school systems, water fountains, restrooms and diners. Everywhere around town you saw White Only Or Colored signs that proclaimed the town’s white-supremacy.

There had been an organized movement and protests against segregation in nearby Albany and by the summer of 1963 local leaders in Sumter County along with SNCC and the NAACP felt the time was right to organize in Americus. The Sumter County Movement launched a voter registration campaign while SNCC organized high-school students to protest and defy segregation with sit-ins, picket-lines and marches at the segregated library, movie theater and bus station in Americus.

More than 100 protesters were arrested early on which only served to inspire more young people to join the movement. There were marches at least once a week and a march every weekend. Some students were sneaking out of their house to participate because they knew their parents would be concerned for their safety due to the violent police response to the protests.

The teens felt the cause was worth the risk. 

The main target for protests was the Martin Movie Theater where a small group of activists organized protests in early July 1963 with about 10 people marching to protest segregation. Within a week, the group grew to about 250 with arrests of the mostly teenage protestors common. 

There was cause for concern in Americus because the local police chief Ross Chambliss called in Sumter county sheriff Fred Chappell to aid in the arrests. Martin Luther King Jr. called Sheriff Chappell “the meanest man in the world” after his visit to Americus in 1961. Chappell was a self proclaimed and proud racist who often attacked and beat Black protestors.

In late July 1963, a small march made up of mostly 12-15 year old girls approached downtown Americus for a peaceful march in front of the segregated movie theater. Sheriff Chappell and his men met these children on the streets with police dogs, Klansmen and men standing at the ready with fire-hoses.

Some of the girls walked up to the counter to try to buy movie tickets but were told to leave because they were Black. 

When Sheriff Chappell ordered the young protesters to disperse, they responded by kneeling down on the sidewalk to pray. 

As these children prayed, the mob attacked with law enforcement using clubs to beat them. High pressure water from the fire hose was used to push them off the streets. 

Children as young as 12 were beaten and bloody when they were arrested for marching and demonstrating for integration. 

“We took a stand for justice and dignity, and I’m proud of what we accomplished, knocking down those ugly walls of segregation.”

Lulu Westbrook, held in the Leesburg Stockade, Summer 1963

Many of the young girls who had taken part in the movie theater protest had done so without their parents’ knowledge. Which meant, when they didn’t come home and parents learned their girls were downtown protesting, they had to go looking for answers as to where the girls were and how long they would be in jail.

They were initially told that the girls were taken to the Dawson jail, about 25 miles from Americus, due to the overflow of protestors jailed in Sumter County. 

The girls did spent one night in the Dawson jail but the next day Sheriff Chappell ordered that 15 of the girls be transported to the old Leesburg stockade in neighboring Lee County.

The stockade had been used to imprison soldiers during the civil war but in 1963 it was the Leesburg Public Works building. Which meant it was fit for storage but not for holding children or adults. 

The Stolen girls were never formally charged. hey were denied due process. Which meant as far as the system was concerned there was no record of where they were. Their parents were distraught as they waited and desperately tried to get answers. 

For weeks, they had no idea their girls were in the Leesburg Stockade or the deplorable conditions they were enduring. 

These 15 girls were held in the filthy one room remote structure surrounded by woods. Bars covered the windows but most of the glass was broken which meant the building was filled with bugs. This was Georgia in the summer which meant oppressive heat beat down on the building and made conditions worse.

The stockade had one toilet that wouldn’t flush. There was a shower head on the wall but it only offered up a tiny trickle of water and there was no soap.

The only source of water for the girls in Leesburg Stockade. Credit: Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

The girls were forced to sleep on cement floors and day after day they felt the walls closing in as they had no way to clean themselves, no word on when their imprisonment would end and no word from their family. 

The one guard who stood watch outside told them they wouldn’t know when but one day he would take them out of the stockade one by one and kill them.

A local dog catcher was ordered to deliver food each day…mostly rancid egg sandwiches and rare hamburgers. 

One of the young girls said she reminded her friends to only eat the edges of the meat that was cooked to avoid food poisoning which would have only made conditions worse. 

Lulu Westbrook and Mae Smith sleeping on cement floor in stockade. Credit: Danny Lyon/ Magnum Photos

The dog catcher eventually broke down and went to the parents of a few of the girls to inform them of their location. He reminded them they had to stay away. Going there could prove dangerous for their parents and get them killed. There was nothing they could do to free the girls because they were jailed under the order of Sheriff Chappell. Until he or some power above him agreed to free them, the girls would have to remain in the stockade.

Lulu Westbrook, one of the Stolen Girls, said she had joined the group through her church and knew there was a chance she could be arrested and spend a night in jail.  She never imagined she would end up in a stockade in the middle of nowhere because she took part in a peaceful protest.

That protest cost 15 girls nearly two months of their freedom and it cost other girls time as well. We know 15 girls remained jailed in the stockade for close to two months but as many as 33 girls would spend time in that stockade over the course of the summer of 1963 as protests continued during the Sumter County Movement. It’s said the other girls’ families may have had money or connections that helped them gain early release, saving them the trauma of an ongoing imprisonment.. 

“We were all demonstrating and we wanted people to know that we wanted to be free.” 

Carolyn DeLoach, held in the Leesburg Stockade, Summer 1963

The Stolen Girls were a part of something bigger. Something they could not see from the stockade. During the summer of 1963, an estimated 15,000 young Black protestors were arrested across the south. 

Hundreds had already been arrested in Sumter County before the girls were placed in the stockade and more were being arrested each week. This Americus movement as it became known was a significant social movement of the Civil rights era because of the number of young people who were arrested and incarcerated. A majority of them were between the ages of 12 to 15. In Sumter County, Sheriff Chappell kept these children, these protestors, behind bars for longer lengths of time than any other city in Georgia with similar movements. 

For the girls in the Leesburg stockade, their situation was cause for concern for SNCC members and local activist groups because as the movement was gaining traction, their resources were limited and on August 8th they found themselves facing a legal battle that captured nationwide attention. 

The arrest of men known as the Americus Four, and the subsequent legal battle for their release, further angered Sheriff Chappell that August and fueled his refusal to publicly reveal the girls location or set them free.

SNCC fieldworkers Ralph Allen, Don Harris, and John Perdew had relocated to Sumter County in February 1963 to help launch voter registration drives and organize mass meetings and marches for integration. 

Sheriff Chappell and other white leaders in Sumter County viewed these young men as the key troublemakers. To suppress their work and try to put an end to freedom marches, the three men along with Congress of Racial Equality worker Zev Aeloney were arrested and charged with insurrection. Under Georgia’s 1871 Anti Treason Act these charges carried the death penalty. 

Unlike the arrest of the Stolen Girls, the arrest of these young men made national news because three of the men were white and charged for insurrection in the deep south. This drove a lot of media attention and became a controversial issue. The Americus Four were ultimately freed in November 1963 after a Federal Panel of judges ruled the “insurrection law” unconstitutional. 

Credit: Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos

Which brings us back to the Stolen Girls. 

SNCC wanted to find a way to free them but they had limited resources at the time and they were spread thin. They had sent organizers to focus on groups in Mississippi and a large portion of their Georgia group focused on the charges against the Americus Four. 

By late August, members from SNCC Atlanta were able to connect with the Stolen Girls family members and finally confirmed their location. But as their parents knew, locating the girls didn’t mean freeing the girls.

SNCC knew they had to come up with a way to show the severity of injustice for the girls in the Leesburg Stockade. They had to show the girls had essentially been stolen from their families, denied due process and were living in horrible conditions in a run down building.  

They came up with a plan to have two white volunteers drive to the Leesburg stockade. One would be a man who could help reveal the truth, volunteer photographer, Danny Lyon. 

Self Portrait, Danny Lyon

Lyon was the official photographer for the region. A local activist drove him to the stockade and distracted the guard while Danny snuck around to the back of the building. Considering the circumstances, seeing a white man suddenly standing on the other side of the window didn’t immediately put the girls at ease. 

They asked who he was and Danny said his name and then said “Freedom”, which was the code word for the civil rights movement. 

Danny Lyon took about 20 photos in the fifteen minutes he was at the stockade. Those images showed the filthy conditions including the broken toilet and some of the girls sleeping on cement floors. A few of the photos showed some of the girls smiling because they wanted him to show their moms that they were ok.

Billie Jo Thornton. Credit: Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

The one photo that captured the attention of black press nationwide was of the 15 stolen girls standing in that old stockade in Leesburg. You see tired faces but you also see determination and courage. 

SNCC printed the photos in their Student Voice newsletter and the images were picked up by Jet and other Black papers. On September 14th, the images made the front page of the country’s most influential Black weekly newspaper, The Chicago Defender. The headline read: “Kids Sleeping on Jail Floor: Americus Hellhole for Many.” 

The movement organized and formally requested some of the images be entered into the Congressional Record. With the help of New Jersey Senator Harrison Williams, the request was honored and the publicity of the Stolen Girls situation and what they had now endured for nearly five weeks was the pressure needed to free them. The images were sent to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who made some calls.

After 45 days in the Leesburg Stockade, the girls were transported back to Americus and told they were free to go home.

They were never charged with a crime but upon their release each of their parents were ordered to pay a $2 boarding fee for the use of the stockade as their holding cell. 

Freed on a Friday, the girls were back in school on Monday. No one asked where they had been or what happened to them and from that moment on, they remained silent about what happened in the stockade for over 40 years. They just sort of shut off that part of their life and did their best to move on. Some remained in Americus and some moved away.

Many continued to join in marches and protests throughout the civil rights movement.

Emmarene Kaigler-Streeter, Carol Barner-Seay, Shirley Green-Reese and Diane Bowens stand outside the stockade building in Leesburg, Ga., where they were jailed in 1963. Aletta Cooper/StoryCorps (2016)

For the Stolen Girls, time passed but the pain of what they endured in the Leesburg Stockade never has. Some of the women say that well into their 60s and 70s they still have to sleep with lights on at night because they’re scared of the darkness. During an interview with StoryCorps, one of the women said that just getting into the elevator to get to the studio a few floors up made her feel anxious because she was in a small enclosed space. It still felt hard to breathe some days…nearly five decades on.

Most of the women agreed that opening up to tell their story was hard, but it they felt they needed to to it to help themselves and help others. The wanted children to know they have a voice and can make a difference. As Stolen Girl Lulu Westbrook said: “We took a stand for justice and dignity, and I’m proud of what we accomplished, knocking down those ugly walls of segregation.”

Sources

Hidden Herstory: The Leesburg Stockade Girls. Smithsonian National Museum

The Leesburg Stockade Girls. StoryCorps. January 2019.

Leesburg’s legacy. Atlanta-Journal Constitution. March 2019.

‘We suffered tremendously’: 1 of the ‘Leesburg Stockade Girls’ recalls experience. WALB News 10. February 2020

Return to Leesburg Stockade. Danny Lyon

Georgia Youth Fuel the Americus Movement. Reflections: Georgia African American Historic Preservation Network, 2017 Sept/Oct. Georgia. Department of Natural Resources. Historic Preservation Division

Americus Movement. New Georgia Encyclopedia. July 2020.

Music

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use. 


Burden Laid Down by The Westerlies, Pink Horizon by Chris Haugen, St Francis by Josh Lippi and the Overtimers and Magic Forest by Sir Cubworth Licensed under a Creative Commons; Dark Times, Peace of Mind, Elegy and Virtues Instrumenti by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Source: http://incompetech.com



Categories: civil rights, georgia, history, mississippi, mysteries, podcastrecommendations, podcasts, podcasts with southern accents, southern podcasts, southernmysteries, true crime, truecrime

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply