Around 200 African American youths gathered in downtown Americus, Georgia, in July 1963 to peacefully oppose local segregation. Police rushed in to arrest the teenage protestors after sanctioning violent attacks by a white crowd.
While some protestors were quickly released, 35 young African American girls were imprisoned for nearly two months in an abandoned Civil War-era prison. This incident, known as the “Stolen Girls,” exemplified both the young social justice movement and the heavy hand of white authority in defining civil rights politics in the Deep South.
In Americus, the county seat of this agricultural region of Southwest Georgia, black teenagers, part of a generation frustrated with the tokenism of change in the early 1960s, played a particularly critical role in opposing racism and injustice.
Their involvement arose as a result of the Sumter County Movement of 1963–65, which brought together different but vibrant networks of local African Americans and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for political organization (SNCC).
African American students launched daily demonstrations against segregation at the Martin Theater and the Trailways bus station in late July 1963. White counter-protesters greeted young black activists with taunting and violence, turning peaceful marches into a ruckus.
Local cops eventually adopted a method devised by Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett in response to the 1961–62 Albany Movement. Americus officers arrested protestors and imprisoned them indefinitely in cells across the region to minimize news coverage and break up the continuous protests.
Following the Martin Theater protests, thirty-three young women, the youngest of who was ten years old and the oldest of whom was sixteen, were arrested and transferred to the “Leesburg Stockade,” a small and stinky Civil War-era prison about twenty miles outside of Americus in neighboring Leesburg, without notice to their parents.
They were not fed for the first two days of their detention, so they survived on rations of overcooked hamburgers and egg sandwiches provided by the jailers. The girls shared their space with mosquitoes, gnats, and, on one occasion, a snake brought into the room by the guards, while sleeping on filthy mattresses and without a working toilet.
After weeks of scouring throughout the region, SNCC photographer Danny Lyon found them and alerted the community. Many parents eventually received a bill with a price of two dollars for each day their child was imprisoned, which was possibly the ultimate indignity. Lyon’s photographs, on the other hand, were published in the Chicago Defender and helped to record the cruelty of Jim Crow in rural Georgia for the entire country.
After surviving the Leesburg Stockade, several of the Stolen Girls remained involved in the Sumter County Movement, although their efforts were largely ignored. Some, like Sandra Mansfield and Annie Lou Ragans, have passed away, but others, like Lulu Westbrooks-Griffin, Carolyn DeLoatch, Carol Barner-Seay, Dianne Dorsey Bowens, Emmarene Kaigler-Streeter, and current Americus City Councilmember Shirley Green-Reese, are still speaking out about their experiences.
The Stolen Girls’ story exemplifies young people’s devotion to the greater civil rights movement of the 1960s, particularly African American girls.