The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

During the 1963 March on Washington, these Black girls were locked up in Georgia

The Leesburg Stockade Girls, who ranged in age from 12 to 15, were held for nearly two months without being charged with a crime.

Arrested for demonstrating in Americus, Ga., teenage girls were held in a stockade near Leesburg, Ga. They had no beds and no working sanitary facilities. (Photo by © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos) (© Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos)
4 min

It was her first civil rights demonstration. Shirley Green-Reese was 13 when she challenged segregation outside the Martin Theater in Americus, Ga., in July 1963.

She tried to buy tickets at the front of the theater instead of entering from the back alley. That’s when the police arrived.

“We were just children. We didn’t think nothing could happen to us,” said Green-Reese, now 72, of the moments before she was arrested. “We just didn’t know the danger of it.”

She had gone to the protest without her parents’ knowledge and figured she could make it back home before they did. She wouldn’t.

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Instead she was transported from cell to cell in rural southwest Georgia before finally ending up in a stockade in Leesburg, where she was among 15 girls imprisoned for at least 45 days without ever being charged with a crime. The children, who ranged in age from 12 to 15, eventually became known as the Leesburg Stockade Girls.

But for a long time, their parents had no idea where they were. They were still locked up during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Green-Reese had never slept away from home without her parents. She was terrified.

And the conditions inside the Civil War-era structure in the backwoods of Lee County were appalling. The toilet was rusted out and didn’t work. There were no beds. Shattered glass littered the concrete slab floor. The only running water dripped from a leaky shower head.

“It smelled like feces had been there for years,” Green-Reese said. “We didn’t know if we were gonna live or die.”

In the middle of a Georgia summer, the concrete stockade was sweltering. Eventually, Green-Reese used a piece of her clothing like a rag to wipe down a spot on the filthy cement to sit. It became her makeshift bed, though she and the others could barely sleep.

To drink water and try to wash themselves and their clothes, the girls would cup their hands underneath the shower head, a painstaking process. The water was always hot, but that was all they had.

They were given cold hamburgers or egg sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner as a White man stood guard.

As the days wore on, conditions worsened. They had been wearing the same clothes for weeks, barely able to wash them. The toilet, which didn’t flush, was filled with feces. With no toilet paper, the girls used the paper the barely cooked hamburgers were wrapped in to clean themselves.

The stench was overpowering. Many developed headaches or became nauseous. They didn’t know how long they’d be there for, or if they’d survive. At night, they’d pray that they would.

While the girls agree that it was 15 of them in there for between 45 and 60 days, there have been some disputes over just how many teenagers came through the stockade for a night or two.

Green-Reese remembers it being mostly silent on some days. Other times, the girls would talk about their families and how much they missed them.

Still, they found ways to distract and entertain themselves. They played games. They told jokes. They organized talent shows.

“There wasn’t nothing else to do,” Green-Reese said.

Finally, after weeks of wondering whether anyone would come to help them, the girls noticed a White photographer by the window. They all sprang up.

“What’s your name?” asked Green-Reese. “Who are you?”

He told them he was Danny Lyon. He was a 21-year-old photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had been rooming with SNCC leader John Lewis.

He had been assigned to find the stockade by James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC, who’d heard that Black girls were locked up somewhere in the area. Lyon found his way to Lee County, where a Black man at a funeral home serving as a movement headquarters explained where the girls were. They made a plan to distract the guard while Lyon took pictures.

Get in a group, and I’ll take your picture, Green-Reese said Lyon told them. Lyon was trying to get the pictures quickly before the guard noticed.

They showed him how they slept, lying on the floor in their separate areas. He took photos of them by the cell bars and staring at his camera. They reached out through the barred windows and touched one another. After maybe 10 or 20 minutes, he can’t remember exactly, he had what he needed.

“The moment was brief, but it was really powerful for everyone,” Lyons said in an interview. “I wanted to get the hell out of there once I got the pictures to get them away safely.”

And he did, getting the images published in a September issue of Jet Magazine and bringing national attention to the Leesburg Stockade Girls. They were released the same week four Black girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., according to an account from the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

When she returned home with her parents, Green-Reese slept on her living room floor in front of the television. She and many of the other girls would soon return to school without a word. Classmates didn’t say anything about their absence. Neither did Green-Reese’s parents. And while they now talk about it with each other, and there’s a historical marker in front of the Leesburg Stockade, the pain of the nearly two months locked up in a one-room stockade persists.

“It was a big relief,” Green-Reese said of being released. “But still, I was 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.”

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