Yale Justice Collaboratory celebrates life of local artist and activist Winfred Rembert
Community members gathered at NXTHVN to honor Rembert, a civil rights icon who passed away earlier this year.
Isabel Kalb, Contributing Photographer
Over 200 members of the New Haven community gathered at NXTHVN art space last Thursday to honor the life and legacy of artist and longtime New Haven resident Winfred Rembert, who passed away on March 31, 2021.
The event, organized by the Yale Justice Collaboratory, featured a panel, displays of Rembert’s critically acclaimed artwork and discussions of Rembert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrated memoir, “Chasing Me to my Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South.” Several members of the Rembert family attended the event, including his wife, Patsy Rembert, who spoke on the panel, and two of his eight sons, Winfred Rembert Jr. and Mitchell Rembert.
“I’ve had … experiences similar to my father’s,” said Mitchell Rembert. “My father showed me a way to express myself growing up, through art and the tradition he created. I have to carry on his morality of not holding hatred, and his focus on sharing our stories.”
Part of that legacy, to Mitchell Rembert, means staying active in New Haven. He recalls many conversations with his father on the power of successful figures staying rooted in their communities.
“Seeing is believing,” he added. “My father wouldn’t take his light and leave. He wanted to shine bright so that he could inspire everywhere he went, and he did.”
Born in 1945 in Cuthbert, Georgia, Rembert was an active figure in the Civil Rights movement, surviving an attempted lynching and seven years of forced labor on a chain gang. While living in New Haven at 51, he decided to use the leather-tooling skills he had acquired in prison to create art, beginning a successful career. Rembert’s work focuses on his life experiences, displaying scenes from his youth on carved and painted leather.
As an artist himself, Rembert’s son Mitchell is working to carry on his father’s legacy.
NXTHVN employee Susannah Wilson said she found it moving to watch Rembert’s grandchildren running around at the event, calling it a beautiful moment of “intergenerational activation” in which Rembert’s family could bear witness to the power of his impact.
“The book was a launching pad,” said Wilson. “Authors, artists, legal scholars, activities, historians … the event gave so many people who care deeply about his life, mission and spirit, a platform to come together and speak.”
Unity and community support were central themes during Thursday’s event. Jason Price, co-founder and chairman of the board of NXTHVN, expressed a hope that the space could become a source of community gathering and organizing through events such as this one.
“Winfred’s memoir and art illustrate a primary Justice Collaboratory principle: that individual and collective well-being are cornerstones of justice,” said Caroline Nabo, the Collaboratory’s Executive Director.
Prior to Rembert’s passing, other NXTHVN co-founder Titus Kaphar ART ’06 had spoken extensively with the artist about putting on an event together in the newly established space. NXTHVN organizers recalled Rembert’s enthusiasm about the idea and the space itself.
In his absence, Rembert’s book agent, along with the Yale Justice Collaboratory, kept the conversation going. Several attendees, including Jenn Richburg ’24, came to the event as part of a current Yale College class taught by Justice Collaboratory members called “Justice and Society.”
“There’s so much pain and exhaustion in talking about the Jim Crow experience, and even if you didn’t attend the event, you can see all of the emotion in Winfred Rembert’s artwork,” said Richburg. “The togetherness that occurred in the room that day is unforgettable, and the unity was assisted by the artwork and the family.”
Panelists at the event included Patsy Rembert, Rembert’s wife of 46 years and long-time youth advocate; Erin Kelly, Rembert’s co-author and a professor at Tufts University; Kymberly N. Pinder GRD ’95, Dean of School of Art and two members of the Yale Justice Collaboratory: Reginald Dwayne Betts LAW ’16, GRD ’21 and Elizabeth Hinton, associate professor of history and African American studies and professor of law at Yale.
Other event attendees included students from the Law School and from the School of Art, as well as faculty members and many New Haven locals touched by Rembert’s influence.
“‘Chasing Me To My Grave’ should be on everyone’s reading list,” added Richburg. “It is a vulnerable, beautiful first hand account of the fear and horrors of the Jim Crow era. It won’t be an easy read, but it’s necessary.”
Winfred Rembert passed away at age 75 in his home in New Haven, Connecticut.
Correction, Nov. 3: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that the event was organized by NXTHVN. In fact, the event was organized by the Yale Justice Collaboratory and held at NXTHVN. The News regrets this error.