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He Survived A Near-Lynching. 50 Years Later, He's Still Healing

Patsy and Winfred Rembert in Hamden, Conn., at their StoryCorps interview in 2017.
Jacqueline Van Meter
Patsy and Winfred Rembert in Hamden, Conn., at their StoryCorps interview in 2017.

It was 1965 when Winfred Rembert, then 19, says he was almost killed by a group of white men.

"I'm 71. But I still wake up screaming and reliving things that happened to me," Winfred, now 73, said.

During a 2017 StoryCorps interview, Winfred told his wife, Patsy Rembert, 67, about the traumatic incident he's still grappling with today.

It all started in the aftermath of a civil rights protest that Winfred attended in Americus, Ga., in the 1960s. During the protest he got separated from the other demonstrators, and found himself being followed down an alleyway by two white men with shotguns.

So when he came across a car with keys in it, he stole the vehicle to escape. He was later arrested and sent to jail.

A few months later, while still incarcerated, Winfred caused a disturbance in his cell. The deputy sheriff — who was white — pulled a gun on him. The two men scuffled, but Winfred managed to flee the facility; he'd wrestled the gun away and locked the sheriff in the cell behind him.

The police chased after him. Eventually, they caught up, and put him in the trunk of a police car.

"When they got to their destination, they opened the trunk and I saw all these white people," Winfred said. "And I see these ropes hanging in the tree."

They stripped off his clothing and secured a noose around his ankles before hoisting him into the tree. He said that he was sure he would die.

"The next thing I see was the deputy sheriff, who I had locked in the cell; he took his knife, and he stuck me with the blade. You could probably hear me for miles, screaming. And I could feel the blood running down the back of my neck to the ground," Winfred said.

But before things escalated further, Winfred said that a man he didn't recognize interrupted the sheriff; "This man said 'Don't do that. We got better things we can do with this n*****.' "

They took Winfred back to jail, where he would stay for the next seven years.

"I was sentenced on the chain gang during the prime of my life," he said.

In the years that followed, Winfred worked various jobs in jail — like fixing a bridge damaged by a storm — alongside other prisoners.

It was on one such job that he began his romance with Patsy. At the time, Winfred was on a work crew doing a repair near her house. After seeing Patsy for the first time, he left her a letter. They began writing to one another until he was released in 1974.

Winfred said he waited a long time to tell Patsy about all that he endured as a young man. He didn't want to scare her away, he said.

"When you finally told me, I was devastated," Patsy said.

Once Winfred was out of jail, he and Patsy got married. Today, the pair has eight children and live in New Haven, Conn.

Aside from building a family, Winfred also became a renowned artist. He'd taught himself how to paint while in prison, and when he got out he began making autobiographical paintings on hand-tooled and dyed leather. His pieces are rich in color, and depict the resilience and violence he witnessed during Georgia's Jim Crow era.

Over the years, two films — All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembertand Ashes to Ashes — were made that detail Winfred's turbulent life experiences.

Despite Winfred's survival and successes, he's still working to save himself from the trauma he experienced.

"You know, I even go to the doctor and psychiatrist and everything to try to get help, but I don't think I'll ever get over that," he said. "I think I'll be dead and in my grave before it's over."

Amid those deep scars of the past, Patsy does her best to help Winfred heal. They have now been married for more than 40 years.

"When I look back over your life and see how much was taken away from you, it made me have a special place in my heart for you," Patsy told her husband.

"People don't understand how we found joy even in the midst of our troubles. But when I leave this world, I would like to be in your arms and looking in your eyes. That's how much I love you," she said.

Produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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