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Winfred Rembert is one of the survivors of the harrowing, segregated mid-20th century American South. Born in 1945, he grew up black in Cuthbert, Georgia, where whites and blacks were separated from each other at soda fountains, doctors’ offices, laundries. When he was just a baby, his mother gave him up to a great aunt, who raised him. She took him to church and carried him into fields where they picked cotton and peanuts. In his teens, he says he joined the civil rights movement, was arrested, escaped, was recaptured and nearly lynched, then sentenced to years working chain gangs.
Rembert’s a born storyteller with an incredible, heartbreaking, and hopeful story to tell. So when he took up leatherworking—again—in the mid 1990s, he carved the tan sheets into extraordinary patterns and colored them with shoe dye to illustrate his tale. His stories became the subject of a major 2011 documentary, “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert,” which has been screened on PBS. And these are the stories he told me when we talked yesterday at his exhibition “Beyond Memory,” on view at the Danforth Art Museum in Framingham through Feb. 23.
Rembert: “I was sick and tired of the cotton fields. It’s no fun picking cotton for nothing. You know you ain’t making no money. You just out there every day. And my mother was out there. She was making herself two or three dollars a day. I’m making 50 cent maybe. That was no fun."
“I ran away from the cotton fields and I started hanging out at Jeff’s Pool Room on Hamilton Avenue. All the civil rights work was based on Hamilton Avenue. I was 14. They was doing street protesting for different things, trying to get equal rights in restaurants, theaters, all over Georgia and Alabama. … I wasn’t a big part. I was just making up the numbers, just being part of the body.”
Among the protests he participated in was one in Americus, Georgia, in the mid 1960s against blacks receiving much harsher sentences than whites for similar crimes. “It was a kind of big demonstration, bigger than usual. They had the fire department deputized and they had citizens deputized. And things got out of hand. White people started shooting. And we started running and everything. So I ran down this alley trying to get away and these two white men were running behind me. There was this car sitting there and I took that car and got away.”
Within hours, police caught him: “They just pulled up behind me. And they put me in jail in Cuthbert.”
Rembert says was held there for at least a year. “Well I had stayed in there so long that I was just trying to do something to irritate him.”
“I had stuck a roll of toilet paper in the john and it flooded the jail and the deputy sheriff come back and he opened the door and came in and jumped me. Then there was struggle between him and I. And I ended up taking his firearm away from him. I locked him in the cell and escaped."
“I went to some people’s house who I thought I could get some help from. But they went in the next room and called the police. They threw me in the car. First, they put me in the back seat and escorted me to the jail. Then two, three hours later, they threw me in the trunk [of a police car] and drove me out to an isolated place where they had these noose hanging from a tree. Then they took me out and hanged me upside-down. Then the same guy that I locked in the jail, in the cell, he tried to castrate me. Until another man, a white man, came up and stopped him and saved me from being castrated. Then they cut me down and took me back to the jail bleeding like a pig.”
“There was no new trial. One day they took me to a kangaroo court. They had a judge, but there was no plea, guilty plea, and all that kind of stuff. They just gave me some time. Judge gave me five years for escape, two years for pointing a pistol, and he gave me 20 for robbery. And I asked him, ‘Who did I rob?’ He says, ‘You robbed a man of his pistol.’ I said, ‘Well, he was pulling the pistol to shoot me.’ He says, ‘Well, you should have let him shot you.’”
Rembert says he was sentenced to 27 years and transferred to Georgia State Prison at Reidsville, but ended up serving seven years, much of it working on chain gangs. “I was doing labor work, digging holes, cutting down trees, building roads, and running from bees and snakes. Everyday except Saturday and Sunday.”
“It is slave labor. They just figure out things that’s hard for you to do and make you do them.”
“I just had a hard tough will. I was just determined to survive it. That’s how I got by. I seen a lot of people who didn’t get by. They lost their minds and died, some of them. Young guys too. Young as I was . And some younger.”
While working chain gangs, he saw a girl named Patsy. “The water had washed away a bridge that lead to her home. Me and some more inmates went to fix it. I had seen her once before, but I didn’t really know that she lived where that bridge had washed away. And I recognized her as we rode by, so I walked up to her and introduced myself. And she ran.”
“But I kept pursing her and pursuing her. Finally wrote her a letter and she answered it back. We did that for four and a half years, through the mail. Then I got out in July ’74 and we married that same year, December.”
In prison, Rembert learned leatherworking from a fellow inmate. “I was watching this guy make billfolds. He’s making billfolds and everything and I just stood there and watched him. That’s how I learned, just by watching him. So I convinced him to let me help him make his billfolds. He did that until he saw that I was going to be good, then he kicked me to the curb. Didn’t let me us his tools any more. I made my own tools with nails. You know, they sell all size nails. So I just took a file. They didn’t last very long those type of tools because it’s not hard metal. But I could do enough with them to get what I want done.”
Rembert and his wife now live in New Haven, Connecticut, where they’ve raised eight children. “I couldn’t make no money in Georgia to support a family so that’s when I came to Connecticut in 1975.”
“Don’t stay knocked down. If I had stayed knocked down, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I would be a person who hates everybody. I don’t have time for that. I used to think that way, but I met Patsy and I knew if we were going to have a family I couldn’t be thinking like that. I can’t afford to raise my children that way. Just imagine how my six boys would be if I was a hater.”
“I continued doing it [leather work] for about a year [after I left prison] maybe and then stopped and let it go. Then I tell so many stories after we had the children and all, my wife thought it would be a good idea to put my stories on the leathers. And that’s where we are now.”
“I watch a lot of movies on black life and it seemed to me they don’t tell everything, they leave a lot out. That’s not my goal. My goal is to tell the truth, tell what I saw. Maybe a lot of people didn’t live black life like I lived it or saw that I saw. But my goal is to tell the really truth about black life in the ‘60s. They leave out the attempted lynchings and the killings of families and castrating me and women having babies in the cotton fields. All kinds of things. My father getting his eye knocked out. Police hit him in the face with a blackjack.”
“There’s a lot of black people I think are none interested in their past. And by them being none interested in it, it causes them to commit black-on-black crime and not to be a together race of people. I think if we know the truth then we can inherit and appreciate where we come from and treat each other better and be a better race of people.”
“I bet you Martin Luther King—today’s his birthday—would be very dissatisfied and hurt to his heart knowing how black people have turned their life around oppositely of what he stood for. People just done forgot about that. The civil rights movement accomplished a lot back in the day. But now it’s at a standstill. Even though we’ve got a black president, I don’t think it means that much. Obama is just a black president, that’s all, nothing else. It don’t seem to mean anything to his race of people that we have a black president. And that’s bad.”
“I’m just a black guy in a white people’s world. Let’s face it, the art world is a white world. To be a part of it, to me, is a miracle. I consider myself very successful to come where I come from and to be a part of this elite society of people, you know what I mean? The people in this art world is an elite bunch of folk that you can’t touch. And for them to love my work enough to bring and accept my work, man, that’s something.”
“But don’t go to the chain gang just to be a successful artist.”
Greg Cook is co-founder of ARTery. He’s also the host of the monthly “Quiet, Please” arts and culture talks at the Malden Public Library. Follow him on Twitter: @aestheticresear