'Narrative On Leather' Tells Of African American Lives In Deep South

Winfred Rembert worked in a Southern cotton field at age 6, was arrested at a Civil Rights demonstration in Americus, Ga., at age 19, was jailed with no charges for a year and then escaped, overpowering a deputy and locking him in the cell. Rembert got caught, and later was taken out to a lynching ground and hung naked upside down, surrounded by an angry mob. He miraculously survived that, and wound up doing time in prison, where he endured solitary confinement and working on a chain gang.

In prison, he learned how to be a leatherworker, a skill he would years later use to create artwork depicting his life experiences in the segregated south of the '50s and '60s.

Years later, Rembert relocated to Bridgeport and raised a family with wife Patsy. One day, his wife encouraged her husband to use his leatherworking skills to create artworks telling the story of his challenging life. "He has all these stories," Patsy said. "When he died, they'd die, too."

Since then, Rembert has become an artist renowned around the country for his hand-tooled and dyed leather depictions of a life full of as many happy moments — the small-town camaraderie of a Southern black community — as well as horrible ones: prisons, picks, shovels, shackles, nooses.

Kehler Liddell Gallery in New Haven, the town where the Remberts now live, has a new exhibit of Winfred Rembert's artwork.During the run of the exhibit, a documentary about Rembert, "All Me," will be shown twice at the gallery.

"The movie is called 'All Me' because of one of my pictures, of a lot of men on a chain gang. All those men are me," Rembert said in an interview at the gallery. "It was brutality. ... You really have to be more than one person inside yourself in order to survive this place, to deal with the lifestyle."

Rembert, a cheerful and talkative man, laughs often when telling stories, as if he, too, is amazed to have survived it all. Patsy Rembert does not laugh. "It hurts me to hear how he was treated. I'll never get over how he was treated," she said. "It had to be that God intervened and sent someone to save him."

She was referring to the day Rembert wound up almost being lynched. "They threw me in the trunk of a car. When they opened the trunk, it was midnight, and I see these nooses hanging from trees. They took off my clothes and hung me by my legs. The deputy I had locked in the jail cell had a knife and cut my private parts," he said. "Then another man said 'Don't do that. We got better things we can use this nigger for.'

"Members of the Ku Klux Klan were standing there, state police, city police, but whatever this man said, they listened," Rembert said. "I never saw his face."

This "guardian angel" saved Rembert's life but didn't rescue him from degradation. A judge sentenced Rembert to 27 years, which included time spent on a chain gang.

"The chain gang is probably the worst thing you could ever do to a human being. They say slavery is tough. I can't believe it was any tougher than being on the chain gang," he said. "The chain gang was just inhuman. It's a place where all dignity is taken away from you. You're not a man anymore. It's designed to break you down physically and mentally."

He left prison after seven years. He and his wife moved up north. He began the happy, productive and peaceful period of his life, when they raised six sons and two daughters and he worked on the docks in Bridgeport and started his art career.

Many of Rembert's "narratives on leather" tell stories of happy days before his arrest. "Homer Clyde's Cafe," for example, is filled with nicely dressed black people, and Rembert has stories to tell about all of them.

"Homer Clyde would feed people who were hungry. He's give away food that was left over. ... That's Papa Screwball, in the white paints and white hat. He was a great dancer. Bojangles would be mad to see him," he said. "The woman in the gray dress, she delivered babies. She's now in a convalescent home. She still has her bag of things. She has Alzheimer's but she still knows what her bag is. ... This is Buck Ross. He was a moonshiner. He got shot over 100 times and lived, because he wouldn't give white people a share of his money. ... Bubba Duke, in the black suit, opened juke joints kids could go into that didn't serve alcohol."

NEW HAVEN'S OWN WINFRED REMBERT will be at Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave. in New Haven, until Aug. 31. A screening of "All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert" will be Saturday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. Rembert and filmmaker Vivian Ducat will be there. Another screening will be Aug. 21 at 7 p.m., with Rembert present, preceded by a leatherworking demo. Details: kehlerliddell.com and allmethemovie.com.