Recently, a video popped up on my FaceBook timeline called, Girls of Leesburg Stockade. It was about 33 girls who were ages 9-14 years old, when they were kidnapped by white police in 1963 for attending a “mass meeting” (civil rights) and trying to integrate the local theatre. They were herded into a large windowless truck with no seats (they got a rough ride like Freddie Grey), and transported to a building where they had no idea where they were, then moved from place-to-place where their families couldn’t locate them. The video, and how whites could snatch any Black person up and do what they wanted when they wanted, reminded me of an event in my Dad’s life that I wanted to share.
A few years back, we’re sitting at my kitchen table in Memphis, TN. My sister, Hattie and her husband, Pete, had brought Daddy down from Milwaukee, WI to visit because we never knew when it would be his last trip; he was about 101 years old then. Memphis was where he was born, but he spent more time in his early life in Mississippi, although I don’t remember him saying how (or why) he went there in the first place.
I’m questioning him about his life because he loved genealogy and talking about how life used to be. He was a font of knowledge about relatives on his side and my mother’s (even though they were divorced for 60-70 years by then), relatives he remained close to long after they divorced. He started talking about his early life when he was married to my mother, and eventually reflected back to retelling a story he’d told me some years before that, but I didn’t remember much of it so this time I paid closer attention.
It was 1932-33 and Daddy was a young man (born in 1907) in his late 20s (so maybe he was 28 years or so). He was a mechanic and nothing thrilled him more in life than driving and tinkering with a car engine. So, he’s driving his car (that he took excellent care of) and enjoying the journey (he LOVED to drive and wanted his ashes scattered along Route 66). He’s driving down one of the many unpaved roads to get into town in Tupelo, MS to run errands for my mother.
At some point he comes up behind a white woman who’s tooling along at a much slower speed than he wanted to go, so he’s behind her until he can comfortably pass (he was ALWAYS a safe driver) and he speeds past, which throws dust swirling in the air and upsets the woman driving (driving was still kinda new to people in those days, especially women) and he laughs even at his memory of laughing while taking a pertinacious pleasure at his expert driving skills compared to hers. He watches her in his rearview mirror weaving across the road because she’s so upset from the dust and being passed at a higher speed than she thought was necessary, talking to himself about she needed to learn how to drive before taking up the road. Now this is a man who used to yell out the car at white hitchhikers, “you were free before me, you shoulda been there by now!” and laugh hardily even though he knew they couldn’t hear him (more to entertain us kids).
Daddy gets into town and is trying to get to the store to pick up something my mother wanted and before he’s done he’s approached by the sheriff who calls him “boy,” and makes him come into his office. Daddy was nervous because he knew nothing good ever happened when a white sheriff takes a Black man into his “office,” but he complied. The sheriff asked him if he’s the one who nearly “run” a white lady off the road, but Daddy only admits to passing her. I can’t remember if the woman was present (I don’t recall him saying she was there), but she insisted that “that n*gger” be put in jail for her pain and suffering, so the sheriff told him he would have to jail him until “things could be sorted out.”
Daddy was furious, but there were no lawyers to represent Black folks, you couldn’t argue a white sheriff into letting you go on baseless charges, and most people didn’t have phones so he couldn’t even call home to tell my mother where he was in case he disappeared, which was not unusual in those days.
While he was jailed he said his thoughts vacillated between anger at being jailed upon the whims of a white woman that he had not harmed, and worry that my mother was alone with their little baby (my sister, Annie Doris) and didn’t know where he was. After being locked up overnight not being able to confront the woman who wanted him charged, or fight back legally, the sheriff released him with a warning about upsetting the gentry. No charges made, no explanation of why it was legal to keep him there or even to release him for that matter, and no apology for arresting him in the first place. Listening to this man some 80 years after the fact, and watching his body language, anyone would think this happened yesterday, or the year before. The anger he felt for having that done to him, a man who was always an honest and cordial man, proud and knowledgeable about everything in the news, was fresh and almost palpable. To his way of thinking, he wasn’t treated like a man, but an animal.
“You all just don’t know how it was back then, you just don’t know,” he repeats several times, more to himself than to us. I ask him to tell us exactly how it was, and he grips the top of his cane so tight you can see the veins on the back of his hands look as if they’re ready to burst. His brow is deeply furrowed and his head is bent as if he didn’t want anyone to see his eyes at that point. “You just don’t know,” was what we were left with from his inability to describe his pain.
When I watched the clip of the documentary, “Girls of Leesburg Stockade” and other data about that event, I thought of Daddy’s plight and how white folks had total disregard of the families of their victims when they violated not just their civil rights, but their basic rights as human beings.
In the video documentary the young girls were held in a one-room stockade, some for 3-and others up to-45 days, without their parents or anyone else knowing where they were for several days. The stockade building itself was out in the middle of nowhere and had been abandoned for years with no useable facilities like restrooms, toilets, running water, not even beds—they slept on the concrete floors (mostly without blankets). The only source of water was a “dripping shower head,” according to one report. I don’t want to imagine how they handled their menstrual cycles or dirty clothes. They had no toiletries or changes of clothes, and the dogcatcher was the one who brought them food (and eventually got messages out to their parents of where they were), which mainly consisted of “undercooked” hamburgers [I’m blanching at the thought of salmonella]! When they were released, they weren’t charged with a crime, but each family had to pay $2 for each of them to be released “for boarding” them that whole time; the price of food scraps, mistreatment, and no accommodations.
Looking at these two events, my Dad’s and the 33 children, happening 30 years apart, in the south, and comparing them to what’s still happening today, I find history still repeating itself; maybe because we haven’t learned how to love each other as the Bible teaches. Being honorable means nothing when you’re Black even today. The girls were honorable, too young to even know the scope of what they were doing beyond being civilly disobedient. Daddy followed the rules, and being was too proud to borrow money, or ask for welfare, he worked his ass off to provide for his family every day, even years after he divorced my mother (he never remarried) until forced to retire because of his age, but always proud and honorable.
Many men are honorable. They were veterans like Daddy was (he was never granted VA benefits, though), but that doesn’t inoculate them from the racism they must face even in 2016. Proud men shamed by the sheer powerlessness of the situation, because our society tells us that we are weak when we don’t fight back. From what I see through my research, when you take away the manhood from an honorable man, all that’s left is anger.
An officer who shoots a man in his car after stopping him for having a broken taillight doesn’t know before that fatal bullet leaves his gun that the victim it will claim served his country, never had a ticket, worked hard, provided for his family, honored his religion (usually Christianity), and was always available to help someone in need. All he knows in those few seconds before he makes a fatal decision is what’s been honed into his mind since childhood, “I feared for my life,” or “Black people are to be feared,” or worse, “shoot first, ask questions later.”
Following that decision to shoot a human being begins the gathering by those sympathizing with the horror that’s become the norm on the evening news, of all the “after facts” mainly meant to humanize a person who did nothing to warrant public execution on his or her way home. But that’s not always the case when the deceased is African American. Always accused of “resisting,” videos show that they were merely trying to ward off blows by fists, night sticks, or boots. It’s a natural human reaction to protect the area of your body where it’s being attacked, but it’s unlawful for Black men to do so, cause–resisting.
For African Americans, we see time-after-time that those “after facts” are tempered by more negative “after facts” gathered by white-led media that attempt to demonize the person killed as if something they did twenty years before had a bearing on them becoming a hashtag representing uncalled for violence. As if not paying child support was worth being killed. As if going to jail for smoking pot was punishable by death.
I am now seeing the rationale for incarcerating Black males for the slightest offense, because no matter what they are shot for in later years, they will always look to white people as if they brought their deaths upon themselves because they had a prison record, no matter how insignificant or unrelated.
I can just imagine that if Daddy had been shot in his 80s or 90s, media would have learned he was jailed overnight—with no charges, but that would be carefully excluded—and he’d be portrayed as a felon, which he was not, but that wouldn’t be as newsworthy. And the trivia that he was jailed because he annoyed some overanxious white woman would also be excluded because that would not be the aim of an “after fact” for the victim of a public execution.
Those 33 girls were secreted away in 1963, just like Daddy was (about)1933, with no one knowing where they were initially, at the whim of white men who didn’t think they were owed an explanation or apology, or even fair treatment, because—they could. And, the girls had no protection from any proclivities those men may have had for little children. The youngest girl, nine years old, was regularly let out to “eat with the guard,” but none of the women expounded upon that one detail. Even though the parents tried to unite to get the kids back, the girls were moved from place-to-place to (initially) prevent being found, which I compare to being an earlier version of the Nigerian Boko Haram (maybe that’s where the Nigerians learned this tactic when they kidnapped all those female children).
With few exceptions Black men assassinated on public streets are not given aid even though law enforcement is required by law to be trained in life saving techniques. We watch countless videos of officers of the law standing around watching a human being die and they do nothing, even when dozens of cell phone cameras are recording their actions because—they can. More and more we’re seeing (or hearing on video) them congratulate each other on the kill in their adrenaline stoked excitement.
The final insult of being handcuffed AFTER being shot or pronounced dead, signifies that white men still consider them dangerous when their bodies are lifeless, unable to more, and left to rot in the sun, uncovered and unaided. But the final indignity for that body lying in the streets is for the cameras to show them as being made powerless by the white man, arms twisted behind their lifeless backs–in handcuffs–in perpetuity; white triumph. Any financial burden resulting from that event shouldn’t be on the taxpayers to resolve, but always is as if we are all complicit in their crimes. The victimizer gets paid leave, benefits, a continuing paycheck, and finally–retirement.
So, as we sat there in my kitchen in (c)2008, in Memphis, TN, watching Daddy still in discomfort, wiping his eyes from time-to-time, from being jailed some 80 years before, I understand better than most the lasting effects of such humiliations; they are not minor. They do not go away over time. They stain the soul. They leave an indelible hole in the psyche that acts like an anchor—snatching their minds back to that time when they had no power and conditions made it illegal to fight for survival. That does not go away unaided by therapy. It often gets anesthetized by drugs or alcohol, or shorten tempers that flare with little provocation because the mind is broken from gross indignities. That life-altering event is left to fester and rot the mind like decaying bodies left unaided in the sun.
My last question before we ended the conversation about Daddy’s jail time, the last one we ever had on this subject, was what happened to the sheriff? He lifts his cane up and down a couple of times and bounces the rubber end off of the floor quietly, head still bent, brows still furrowed, shoulders slumped, and after what seems like minutes, he says quietly, “don’t know, he disappeared.”
Girls of Leesburg Stockade, Americus, GA 1963
NPR report of this event
Georgia on My Mind