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Leesburg 15 survivor determined keep the story from being hidden in history

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LEESBURG, Ga (WRBL)- Imagine being a child locked away in a dirty, dangerous dungeon for two months. It happened to 15 young women in our area between the ages of 12 and 15-years-of-age during the Civil Rights Movement.

In honor of Black History Month, we recently traveled back to the Leesburg stockade with one of the survivors who says she is committed to bringing this chapter of Hidden History to light.

It’s the last place, you’d ever expect Dr. Shirley Reese would want to see again.

“A blessing in disguise to be able to be alive in this place, because in 1963, we didn’t have any hope,” said Dr. Reese, one of the Leesburg 15 survivors.

No hope for 15 young women– between the ages of 12 years to 15-years-old– arrested on the streets of Americus during a peaceful Civil Rights protest in the summer of 1963.

They were snatched from their families and forced to live for two months inside the Leesburg stockade.

“This place was deplorable,” recalled Dr. Reese. “Roaches, mosquitoes . . .No flushable toilet. No sink. No shower . . .Contaminated all over. Spiders webs. . .it was awful.”

For 60 days, the Leesburg 15 were enclosed in a tiny portion of the stockade building. The conditions were unsanitary, and despite all they went through and the hardships, they say the message they want everyone to take away today is one of love and forgiveness.

Yolonda Jordan’s mom was the youngest of the Leesburg 15, just 12-years-old. Her mother died in 2012.

“She said love everyone. Speak to everyone, love everyone. Show no hate,” said Jordan.

“It’s an honor to be here with Dr. Reese today. She’s a beautiful person, despite what she went through in 1963. Now, she could be angry, she could be bitter, but she’s not,” said Yvette Nelson of Albany, Georgia.

“They were in this situation and carried on through it, through a lifetime. And it didn’t really emotionally break them,” said LeRoy Henderson of Americus, Georgia.

In September of 2019, the Georgia Historical Society placed a historical marker in front of the stockade.

“We have a school from Minnesota that stops here every year when they come down on their spring trip . . . people from all around the country,” said Dr. Jason Miller, Superintendent of Schools for Lee County, Georgia.

And it’s also drawing local visitors, such as a group from Mount Olive Missionary Baptist in Americus.

“We were always told if you remember your past, you will know the direction that you need to take and need to go in,” said Elizabeth Robinson with Mount Olive.

Dr. Reese says Opal Cannon, who has lived in Leesburg since 1949, worked with her to champion recognition for the Leesburg 15.

“She was part of it, and she knows the story, the truth from beginning to end, and I support her. And I’m proud to have been a part to get it done,” said Cannon.

“What I think is so wonderful is, that like phoenix rose from the ashes, that these girls have risen,” said Martha Dye, of Leesburg, Georgia.

They’ve risen to expose a hidden history from which everyone can learn.

Dr. Reese credits photographer Danny Lyon with for freeing the Leesburg 15.

He snuck on the stockade property and took photographs of the girls which brought the case national exposure.

Dr. Reese says that eight of the Leesburg 15 are still living. She says the group believes their time in the stockade did cause them serious health problems.

In the video below, we have a digital exclusive—more of our extended interview with Dr. Reese who shares details about her journey from childhood to now.

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