Remembering ‘The Stolen Girls’: Black Kids’ Brave Protests Against Segregation, 60 Years On

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In the summer of 1963, amid the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement, a group of young Black girls, among them, teenager Shirley Reese, braved the odds for a peaceful protest in the small town of Americus, Georgia. They approached the Martin Theater and voiced their defiance by attempting to purchase tickets from the window reserved for White customers. The police, predictably, was summoned.

Reese recollects the ensuing scenario where the police officer apprehended the group of children, all aged between 12 and 15, announcing ominously, “All of you are under arrest.” The children were immediately whisked 23 miles out of town and incarcerated in a stockade in Leesburg, Georgia. There they languished for nearly two months, their families left in agonizing cluelessness about their whereabouts.

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Reese, who is now 75, visited the cell with CNN, marking the 60th anniversary of the girls’ arrest. The cell was tiny, claustrophobic and filthy with stained blankets lying around. Enclosed by dense woods, the stockade was a bed of scorching heat during summer days and an isolated pocket of eerie darkness during the nights. The girls lacked the bare necessities of life – no beds, no working shower, no toilet.

Americus might sound optimistic, an embodiment of American promise, but for Black residents in the 1960s, it was merely a shadow, concealing an ugly reality of racism. Children often bore the brunt of protests, being ostensibly safer from retaliation. Broader civil rights groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), capitalized on this notion, frequently mobilizing youngsters for sit-ins and marches to advocate against segregation in the South.

Carol Barner Seay, one of these ‘Leesburg Stockade Girls,’ remembers how the adults largely abstained due to fear of losing their livelihoods. The bulk of the protests then were orchestrated by children. Seay too had been arrested a few days prior to Reese during a march. Gesturing at her skin color, she recalls demanding an explanation and realizing it was reason enough for her arrest in those gruesome days.

Seay recollects the fear and confusion about being moved from Dawson, Georgia, to the Leesburg Stockade and being totally ignorant about their prison’s location. The girls endured squalor and apathy, stuck in the same clothes from the day of their arrest for nearly 60 days. Their food primarily comprised of hamburgers, the wrap of which served as their toilet paper.

Agonizingly missing their families and the comforts of home, the girls confronted fear and uncertainty. They found solace and strength through prayer, reinforcing their hopes for freedom. This hope was rekindled when Danny Lyon, a 21-year-old photographer from SNCC, paid a visit and clicked photos of the girls. His single world, “Freedom,” reverberated inside the cell, stirring a deep resonance among the girls.

The photographs were a veneer of cheerful girls in dresses, but bars of the cell framed them, defying and mocking their smiles. After being published in the SNCC newspaper and Jet Magazine, the photos received national attention, earning them the name ‘The Stolen Girls.’ This spotlight eventually led to their release in September 1963, with no charges filed, thanks to the intervention of New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams.

However, the girls’ ordeal was overshadowed by a horrific incident in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church, causing four little girls to lose their lives. The trauma of Leesburg Stockade pushed many survivors into silence for years to avoid further retaliation.

Plagued by her haunting past, Reese tried to gather herself back, stating that she felt as if she “didn’t exist.” However, she found solace in education and determination, eventually earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. The harrowing experience of the stockade made her stronger and made her chart a path for her survival.

Seay recalls the moment of reuniting with her family after being released. Despite her ordeal, she claims she has grown from her experiences, saying that the incarceration in the stockade should have made her bitter, but it served to make her stronger, better, and more resilient.