It’s a story that warrants national attention, but until recently, has remained untold. A story Dr. Shirley Green-Reese has kept inside for more than 52 years. Reese was one of 15 girls thrown into prison during the summer of 1963. She was only 14 years old. The others, ranging in age from 12 to 15.
“We didn’t know each other during the time we was here. We was from different parts of the city,” Reese recalls.
Their crime? They marched to protest a segregated movie theater in Americus- a tiny town just north of Albany.
“Honey, they arrested all of us,” Reese says. “And I got in too. Nobody ran. And that was the beginning of our life.”
Though they were never charged, the girls were arrested and transported to Dawson- some 30 miles away. Early the next morning, they were placed in a paddy wagon and taken another 25 miles away to Leesburg.
For 2 1/2 months, they were held captive in an old stockade. No beds. Broken glass. No shower. And no connection to the outside world.
Reese says it made them feel deserted.
“Deserted from our city. And worst part about it, we were children. And the other part about it, we were young girls. Black girls. Who were trying to make a difference. Who were trying to support the mission of Martin Luther King. Because we wanted equality. We got tired of going through back doors. We got tired of not being served. We wanted to go through front doors. We wanted equal rights. We wanted justice.”
But justice was slow going. Here, they would remain until mid-September. Their release, not because of public outcry, protests, or policy… but because of a picture.
“There was no NAACP representative who came through these doors,” says Reese. “There was no local officials- political officials. They did not come here. The only person we saw at this stockade the entire time was Danny Lyon and our parents.”
Danny Lyon was a movement photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC when he heard rumors about the jailed girls.
His shocking images would lead to their release.
“After taking the pictures, Danny Lyon indicated to me that he took the pictures back to Atlanta to a bathroom where they had a SNCC office with John Lewis and those,” Reese remembers. “And he developed those pictures right there. After developing the pictures, he sent them to Harrison Williams who was a United States Senator. And they sent an order down to Leesburg, Georgia to release those girls. That’s the only way we got out.”
They returned to school and to life without a word of where they’d been. Too painful to relive, many took the experience to their grave.
But in April of 2015, Dr. Reese and the eight other survivors spoke publicly for the first time during a commemorative program in Americus- with hopes of bringing closure, peace, and perhaps the possibility that their legacy will long be remembered.
Although she never participated in another protest, Dr. Reese says she coped with what happened to her by working hard to challenge the ways of the segregated south.
Today, she holds a Doctor of Philosophy Degree and is a member of the Americus City Council. She also has a local connection. She received her undergraduate degree from Savannah State.
A petition is now underway urging the President of the United States to grant the Leesburg Stockade Girls the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As for the old stockade building, it now belongs to the Leesburg School System.
The superintendent says he’s working on getting a historic marker placed in front of the site.