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April 29, 2002

A survivor's story

Beverly Schaffer, professor of economics, is director of the Violence Studies Program.


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 car’s 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 Rembert’s cell and began beating him and kicking him in the chest.

Rembert’s 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 sheriff’s wife saw him and called the state police. Rembert fled in the sheriff’s car, siren blaring, and blended in with the state police in pursuit.

He thought he’d 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 sheriff’s jail—but not before another beating in the back seat of a squad car.

Early the next morning, after whispered conversations, the police stuffed Rembert in the trunk of the sheriff’s 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 pond—spoiled 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 Rembert’s 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, “Don’t do that! Let that nigger down. Let’s make an example of him.” So they took him back to the jail. Although in great pain, Rembert didn’t 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 man’s chest while he slept and setting him ablaze. No inmate bothered him after that.

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 didn’t, he said.

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 Mule’s place. He knows the people in his paintings—one 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 of violence.

Today he is “somebody.” He only regrets that his mother didn’t 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 Rembert’s 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; let’s hope it also will produce a greater understanding and tolerance of others.