In July 1963, approximately two hundred African American youth met in downtown Americus, Georgia, to peacefully protest local segregation. After sanctioning violent attacks by a white mob, police moved in to arrest the young protestors. While some protestors were shortly released, 35 young African American girls found themselves held in an abandoned Civil War-era prison for almost two months. Known as the “Stolen Girls,” this incident represented both traditions of youth social justice activism and the heavy hand of white authorities in shaping civil rights politics throughout the Deep South.
Black teens, part of a generation frustrated with the tokenism of change in the early 1960s, played a particularly critical role in challenging racism and inequality in Americus, the county seat of this agricultural region of Southwest Georgia. Their activism emerged as part of the Sumter County Movement of 1963–65, political organizing linking diverse but vibrant networks of local African Americans and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In late July 1963, African American youth began to demonstrate daily against segregation at the Martin Theater and the Trailways bus station. Peaceful protests grew raucous as white counter protestors met young activists with taunts and violence. Ultimately, local police borrowed a strategy developed by Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett in response to the earlier Albany Movement of 1961–62. To limit press coverage and break down the ongoing protests, Americus officers arrested protestors and held them indefinitely in jails spread out across the region.
Following the Martin Theater protests, thirty-three young women—the youngest ten-years-old and the oldest sixteen—were arrested and, without notice to their parents, transferred to the “Leesburg Stockade,” a small and dank Civil War-era prison located roughly twenty miles outside of Americus in neighboring Leesburg. Not fed for the first two days of imprisonment, they survived the following days on rations of undercooked hamburgers and egg sandwiches provided by jailers. Sleeping on dirty mattresses and without a working toilet, the girls shared their space with mosquitoes, gnats, and, on one occasion, a snake thrown into the room by the guards. SNCC photographer Danny Lyon finally located them after weeks of searching throughout the region and alerted community members. In perhaps the ultimate indignity, many parents later received a bill with a charge of two dollars for every day of their child’s imprisonment. Lyon’s photos, however, were published in the Chicago Defender and helped document for the entire nation the brutality of Jim Crow in rural Georgia.
Many of the Stolen Girls continued to be active in the Sumter County Movement after escaping the Leesburg Stockade but received little recognition of their struggles. Some such as Sandra Mansfield and Annie Lou Ragans have passed, but others are currently speaking up about their experiences, including Lulu Westbrooks-Griffin, Carolyn DeLoatch, Carol Barner-Seay, Dianne Dorsey Bowens, Emmarene Kaigler-Streeter, and current Americus City Councilmember Shirley Green-Reese. The history of the Stolen Girls represents the commitment of youth, and specifically African American girls, to the larger freedom struggle of the 1960s.