Stolen Girls: The Untold Story of the Leesburg Stockade Girls | ET REALITY

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In July 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, teenager Shirley Reese joined a peaceful protest here in Americus, Georgia, with other young black women.

Together, they walked to the Martin Theater and tried to buy movie tickets at the window designated for white customers. According to Reese, they called the police. But few could have predicted what would happen next.

“You are all under arrest,” Reese remembers the officer telling the children, who she said were between 12 and 15 years old.

And then, without much ceremony, several of the girls were detained and taken to a stockade in Leesburg, Georgia, 23 miles from the city. There they would remain imprisoned for almost 60 days.

Teenage girls, including Shirley Reese, who is clinging to window bars, are held inside a stockade in Leesburg, Georgia, in 1963.

To their parents and loved ones, the girls had simply disappeared. It would be weeks before anyone knew what happened to them, Reese said.

Reese, now 75, returned to the stockade with CNN’s Randi Kaye to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the girls’ arrest.

“It was dirty,” he recalled, surveying the small cell. “There were some blankets there with blood stains.”

The stockade was surrounded by thick forests, and in the summer heat, the cell was extremely humid. The girls were kept there with no beds, no working shower or toilet, she said. And when night fell, they were plunged into the darkness of rural Georgia.

“We couldn’t see each other,” Reese recalled. “So, you know, you hear a lot of sobbing and stuff like that, but nothing, no one could do anything.”

A view from inside the palisade.

Americus is a small town whose name evokes the promise of this country. But for black residents in the 1960s, the name had long belied a dark and racist reality.

During the Civil Rights Movement, children often protested in the city because they were thought to be less likely to suffer retaliation. Civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized sit-ins and youth-led marches across the South to demand an end to segregation.

“(The adults) didn’t participate much because they had to work and take care of families,” said Carol Barner Seay, one of the Leesburg Stockade Girls, as they became known. “And if they had gotten involved in any part of this, they would have lost their jobs. How would they survive?

“It was the children who took the first line.”

Carol Barner Seay was arrested at age 13 and held in the Leesburg stockade for almost two months.

But things changed during the summer of 1963. A few days before Reese was arrested, Seay, then 13, was also arrested during a march in Americus. She told CNN that she remembers demanding an explanation from the officers who took her away.

When asked if officers ever explained why she was detained, Seay pointed to her brown skin as if that were reason enough to jail a child.

“Look at me… does someone owe me an explanation?! Are you going to give me an explanation?!

Seay said she was briefly moved to a jail in nearby Dawson, Georgia, before eventually being taken to the Leesburg Stockade.

“We had no idea where we were,” he said. “We didn’t know we were in Leesburg.”

If the girls had been told their whereabouts, Seay said, it probably would have sparked even more fear.

“Leesburg was known as Lynchburg… They lynched black people in trees,” he said.

For almost 60 days, the girls were unable to bathe and were forced to remain in the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested. Reese said they were fed hamburgers delivered to them by a stranger every day. They used the burger wrapper as toilet paper, she said.

“I would miss my mom. She missed my brothers…my mother’s good cooking,” Seay said.

“We didn’t think we would ever get out,” Reese said.

“We started praying together,” Reese said. “So, we would gather some time and pray. And then we would pray individually and cry individually.

Reese and Seay remember the day, almost a month after their incarceration, when a white photographer showed up. Danny Lyon was a 21-year-old photographer for SNCC.

“(Lyon) went around the building and I said, ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’” Reese recalled. “He said, ‘Shut up!’”

Then she noticed his camera.

“I said, ‘Take a picture of me, right here!’” he recalled. “I knew if he was there taking pictures, they would go somewhere. “That’s why I wanted to make sure he caught me.”

Shirley Reese clings to the bars of the stockade window in Leesburg, Georgia, in 1963.

Seay remembers him signaling the girls with the peace sign and a single word: Freedom.

“If you lived segregated, were born segregated, slept segregated, ate segregated, went to church segregated, freedom meant everything to you,” he said.

“You would have no reason to use that word if you were (White). But if you were my color, it meant a lot. OK? That was a symbol for us, that he was there to not do us any harm.”

At first glance, the photographs Lyon took that day seem cheerful. The girls, still wearing the dresses they wore to the protest, smile at the camera as if to signal to the families desperately searching for them that they are okay.

But a second look reveals that they were surrounded by bars.

That juxtaposition – of smiling children in their Sunday best behind bars – captured national attention. Lyon’s photographs were published in the SNCC newspaper and Jet magazine; The press dubbed them The Stolen Girls. The photos were eventually seen by New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams, who entered them into the Congressional Record.

Amid the protest, the girls were released in September 1963. They were never charged with any crime.

But the story of the Leesburg Stockade Girls was soon overshadowed by the relentless drumbeat of racist violence in the American South. The same week the girls were freed, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls.

Shirley Reese, now 75, said the girls would try to find comfort by praying together.

For years, many of the Leesburg Stockade Girls refused to speak about their harrowing experience. Some of the girls and their families remained in Americus, Reese said, and kept their heads down to avoid further retaliation.

But after being released, Reese said she had a hard time processing everything that had happened to her.

“It was like I didn’t… I didn’t exist,” he said.

Decades later, Reese said she now feels the experience made her stronger. She would go on to earn a master’s degree, as well as her doctorate.

“My mother wanted me to receive an education. And as strong as I was at the time as a kid, when I was there, I was devastated… I didn’t really want to do anything. But I had to reorient my mind,” she said.

Seay said he still remembers the moment he was reunited with his family.

“My mom, you know, hugs me,” he said. “We’ve been away for two months and we haven’t bathed.”

He said his time in the stockade “should have made me bitter. But today I am here to tell you that he made me better and that he continues to do better.”

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