Tuesday, October 29, 2019

True Stories from the Hermitage Artist Retreat -- the Leesburg Girls

The Leesburg Girls pose for SNCC photographer Danny Lyon
It's a bit of a trek to attend a program at the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key. But hearing from artists in the midst of creating their work more than outweighs the inconvenience of an hour in the car. My latest visit was no exception.

Myxolydia Tyler is a teaching artist, vocal coach and actor who, among other things, has worked in the Education Department at Lincoln Center. She considers herself "an actor who likes to tell good stories" rather than a playwright. Whatever she calls herself, she has the makings of a good play in "Falling Birds."

Tyler began her work on the script in 2006 after reading about the Leesburg Girls in Essence magazine. It wasn't until 2013 that the play had a reading. Still, it wasn't an active project. Then, she said, things got weird. Last year she received an envelope with a return address of the Hermitage Artist Retreat. When she opened it, some sand and a seashell fell out -- along with an unsolicited invitation for a six week residency. She thought it was a prank. Fast forward to October 2019 when Tyler found herself at the Hermitage working on her script and reading an excerpt (with help from Angela Bonsalves) to a rapt audience.

The Leesburg Girls
"Falling Birds" tells the little known story of a group of African-American girls who were jailed for more than a month for protesting Jim Crow laws. Their "housing" was a former Confederate stockade. Ironically, while it was the intention of most of the girls to protest, the demonstration had not yet gotten under way when they were swept up. One girl was merely going to the store for her mother.

The girls weren't the only ones picked up on that day in 1963 Americus, GA. But the boys who were arrested were jailed locally; the girls were transported 15 miles away to Leesburg. It was a number of days before their parents knew where to find them. 

Danny Lyon, a 21-year old photographer working with SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) is credited in part for their release. Once SNCC learned about the girls' confinement, Lyon went to Leesburg to document their plight. He captured their situation with a hidden camera and SNCC used the photos to fight for their liberation. The pictures made their way to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who ordered that the girls be released.

When the girls were allowed to go home, Tyler said they were "rushed out as quickly as they were rushed in" -- after, that is, each girl committed never to protest again and paid a fine. Tyler told us that little was said about the incident once the girls were back in Leesburg. Apparently even the girls didn't talk about it among themselves.

Myxolydia Tyler and Angela Gonsalves
In "Falling Birds," Tyler imagines the conversations among the girls during their time in the stockade. We learn about what motivated them to take to the streets. We learn about the inhumane conditions of the stockade-turned-jail. And we learn about the friction that arises between some of the girls and the young woman who wasn't in town to protest. They all dream of SNCC swooping in to save them (which is likely why the girls in the first picture are smiling despite their circumstances).

But Tyler is interested in more than telling the story of the girls' imprisonment. She wants to explore how we heal when histories and stories go untold. In the course of her research, she has had the opportunity to speak with several of the women who lived through the ordeal and are fiinally talking about their experience. But that portion of the play wasn't ready for public consumption.

To read more about the Leesburg Girls, click here. And to see more of Danny Lyons' civil rights photos, click here and here.

Next up -- the bloodcurdling story of Burke and Hare.

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