Born in Americus, Ga., as the only child of poor parents, both
of whom were married to other people, Winfred Rembert grew up and
worked in the cotton fields near Cuthbert, Ga. He dreamed of being
somebody. Today he is an artist who embosses and paints on
leather, memorializing past events and places in Georgia.
Speaking to a large audience March 27 in White Hall, Rembert told
the fascinating story of his brush with death. While his mother
taught him to avoid making waves in his dealings with white people,
one day in 1967 an 18-year-old Rembert disobeyed that principle
when confronted by a white man who ridiculed him in front of others.
Rembert ran from the ensuing melee. Seeing the keys in a cars
ignition, he jumped in and took off. Incensed by his attempts to
promote the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr., the local police gave
chase, welcoming the opportunity to throw him in jail.
After one-and-a-half years behind bars, he flooded the jail in
an act of defiance. Ready to take the beating he knew would result,
Rembert was instead surprised. His gun on his belt, the sheriff
entered Remberts cell and began beating him and kicking him
in the chest.
Remberts resolve snapped. He tackled the sheriff around the
knees and grabbed his gun. He locked the sheriff in a cell but,
as he left the building, the sheriffs wife saw him and called
the state police. Rembert fled in the sheriffs car, siren
blaring, and blended in with the state police in pursuit.
He thought hed refuge in the home of a friend, who fed him
and promised to take him to Florida the next day. That friend,
however, called the state police, who took Rembert back to the sheriffs
jailbut not before another beating in the back seat of a squad
Early the next morning, after whispered conversations, the police
stuffed Rembert in the trunk of the sheriffs car and drove
off. As dawn broke on that fateful day, they dragged him out. He
found himself standing in a beautiful pastoral scene with grass
and a pondspoiled only by the sight of nooses hanging from
trees. Fear gripped him. The men intended to lynch him.
They tied his hands behind his back and stripped him, then tied
a rope around his feet and hoisted him upside down. The sheriff
produced a mean-looking knife and, grabbing Remberts genitals,
threatened to castrate him. Blood started to flow.
Suddenly, as if by magic, a white man in a brown suit and wing-tipped
shoes appeared and, according to Rembert, yelled, Dont
do that! Let that nigger down. Lets make an example of him.
So they took him back to the jail. Although in great pain, Rembert
didnt see a doctor for three months. During that time the
police paraded him in heavy chains through the black neighborhoods
as a lesson to others.
He never discovered the identity of his savior but
knows he must have been a very powerful man.
Next Rembert found himself before a judge facing four charges:
escaping from jail, larceny, pointing a pistol and robbery. The
judge handed down a 20-year sentence for the robbery plus an additional
seven years for the other charges. When Rembert asked whom he robbed,
they told him he robbed the sheriff of his pistol.
Outraged over his 20-year sentence for the robbery,
Rembert became defiant. In Reidsville State Prison another prisoner
threatened him. Rembert poured lighter fluid on the mans chest
while he slept and setting him ablaze. No inmate bothered him after
His frequent acts of defiance at Reidsville and subsequent prisons
landed Rembert in the sweat box many times for 14-day
stretches. When prison officials finally decided that he courted
the sweat box, they quit imposing this form of punishment on him.
Rembert had hoped his actions would serve as a model of resistance
for other prisoners who loathed the sweat box, but it didnt,
Rembert learned how to read and write in prison, writing letters
almost every day in an attempt to gain his freedom. Some he addressed
to a California congressman and dropped on the ground while working
on a chain gang, hoping that someone would find one and mail it.
After seven years in prison, officials suddenly freed him. He attributes
his release to the intervention of the congressman.
Amazingly, he met his future wife in 1969 while working on a chain
gang. He saw her in her yard and found clever ways to inspire her
to visit him in prison on Sundays, which she did until his release
in 1974. They now have eight children of their own, three of whom
have graduated from college. Fourteen other children, considered
endangered, live in their Hartford, Conn., home and attend school.
Rembert places a very high value on education, seeing it as the
route to a good future.
Today he devotes most of his time to his art. His subjects include
scenes from Cuthbert, such as Hamilton Avenue, Colored Folks Corner
and part of Andrews Street with Zadie Mules place. He knows
the people in his paintingsone of which, incidentally, is
owned by Oprah Winfrey (the one of his mother baking as Rembert
looks on). His many pictures of lynchings include one depicting
six black male victims and another related painting showing seven
graves: six for the six victims and one, as Rembert explained, for
humanity. In his view, humanity dies when it engages in this kind
Today he is somebody. He only regrets that his mother
didnt live to see it.
I listened in awe as Rembert related this harrowing tale. That
racial hatred could produce such raw violence as late as 1967 shocked
me, but then I thought about the violence still being perpetrated
because of hatred, whether based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender,
age or other cause.
The Violence Studies Program was pleased to host Remberts
address. The program exists to enhance the understanding of violence,
its causes and consequences. It also seeks to educate students and
others in the means of resolving conflicts peacefully. To these
ends, it offers a minor program for undergraduates along with seminars
and other programs featuring prominent speakers whose research and
teaching contribute to these goals.
As Rembert said, for most people, education holds the key to a
better future; lets hope it also will produce a greater understanding
and tolerance of others.