An Artist on How He Survived the Chain Gang

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tags: racism, Jim Crow, Southern history, criminal justice, Winfred Rembert

On March 31st, the artist Winfred Rembert died, at the age of seventy-five. He was born in 1945 and grew up in Cuthbert, Georgia, where he picked cotton as a child. As a teen-ager, he got involved in the civil-rights movement and was arrested in the aftermath of a demonstration. He later broke out of jail, survived a near-lynching, and spent seven years in prison, where he was forced to labor on chain gangs. Following his release, in 1974, he married Patsy Gammage, and they eventually settled in New Haven, Connecticut. At the age of fifty-one, with Patsy’s encouragement, he began carving and painting memories from his youth onto leather, using leather-tooling skills he had learned in prison. I met Rembert in 2015, while I was working on a book about criminal justice. He told me he wanted to share his life story in his own words but needed help writing it. From 2018 to 2020, I visited his home every two weeks or so to interview him. I transcribed and arranged his reflections and then read the pages back to him. Each time we met, we dug deeper into Rembert’s thoughts about what he had lived through.

—Erin I. Kelly

I’ve painted a lot of pictures of the chain gang. I believed that many people in the free world thought bad of the chain gang. They looked at the workers on the chain gang, working on the highways and in the ditches, and I believe they thought that all the guys were killers. With the paintings, I was trying to show that it wasn’t that way.

Morgan, Georgia, in 1971 was one of the worst places I’ve ever been. There ain’t a minute I can think of when the warden at Morgan was good. Not one minute. He didn’t give a damn what I knew or what I could contribute to his camp. He didn’t care that I had become a model prisoner. He didn’t care about the fact that I was trustworthy and could work without a guard over me. I told him that I could build roads and operate all kinds of equipment. He didn’t care nothing about that. He put me out there on hard labor.

Morgan was all about work and busting you down. Not just physically but in a mental way, too. Everybody was locked down tight. They didn’t have no movement. There was no playing around, no freedom. The only thing they would let you do was to go in the yard on Sundays. There was a big yard with a tall fence. On Sundays, we would play basketball and throw the football around and the inmates would talk to each other. Other than that, we were tied down. No freedom. And the warden is sitting there outside the fence, with his guards, just looking at you like he owns you or something. That’s the way it felt to me.

You had to go out in these caged trucks—back of the truck built like a cage. You would go out with ten or twelve guys. You’d climb in the truck, sit down, and they would shackle you to the truck. All these prejudiced guards would talk a bunch of crap to you. They were ignorant, too. I remember one day we were out doing a bridge job. At lunch break, I was sitting there talking to the guard. He had a can and he opened it with a knife. I saw him open that can and start eating out of it. It was a can of dog food that looked like corned-beef hash.

I said to him, “Hey, boss, what are you eating that dog food for?” He said, “Oh, that’s my wife. I told her about mixing the dog cans up with the food!” I think he couldn’t read.

The food for the inmates was terrible. They served a dish they called “shit on a shingle.” It was ground beef scraps with white gravy and they’d give it to you on a board. Every prison you’d go to had that. We ate a lot of beans, too. One day, there was a rat in the beans. He was in the pot, cooked with the beans, white beans. I said, “Boss, there’s a rat in these beans.” And he said, “At least you got meat!”

And that’s the way it was. It was just that gross. I didn’t eat those beans after I saw that rat, but I was eating them before that. You had to expect bad food. It wasn’t clean. The food was crap, but you had to eat something to live.


Read entire article at The New Yorker

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