Lanier Phillips’ may have arrived on this planet via rural Georgia but by all accounts his mental and spiritual beginnings, with all of the pain and suffering that often accompanies child birth, happened nearly two decades later on the rocky shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Near the small towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn the Lanier Phillips known to his family and friends for the first18 years of his life ceased to exist and the man he would later become was ushered into life.
On an icy night in February of 1942 two American destroyers, the Truxtun and Pollox, broke apart in the North Atlantic on the coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador. 203 young men died. 186 survived, including Lanier Phillips, thanks to the selfless efforts of local residents who risked their lives to scale the jagged, windswept and icy cliffs to bring them to safety.
Badly injured, frostbitten and unconscious, Phillips, like so many others, was taken into a local home and given the best care the residents could provide.
Mr. Phillips often recalled how he awoke to hear one of his caregivers tell another lady in attendance how worried she was. She said she had scrubbed and scrubbed but couldn’t get the black crude oil out of his skin.
Perhaps the moment that made the most lasting impression on Mr. Phillips came after he told the woman his colour wasn’t a result of the ship’s oil but of nature itself. She had never seen an African American.
The shocking thing, for Lanier Phillips, was that her reaction was one of immediate relief for his well being rather than one of repulsion or disgust as he might have expected. He was amazed that this realization he was not white changed nothing for his rescuers. For weeks the local people continued to care for him, as well as the other survivors, like they were family.
As a recent Washington Post story put it:
“The woman cradled Lanier W. Phillips's head in her arm as if he were a baby, gently feeding the shipwrecked sailor hot soup she had brewed to help save his life.
"Swallow," she said gently. "Swallow."
“Phillips could scarcely believe what was happening: a white woman caring for a black man as if he were her son. Back home in Georgia, he thought, she could have been run out of town, and he could easily have been lynched.”
Although the difficult task faced by the people of St. Lawrence and Lawn in rescuing and caring for the victims of that shipwreck is a story worth telling, it is the profound impact on Lanier Phillips himself, brought about by a simple act of kindness, which is so inspiring.
As an African American, from a poor Southern family, and raised in the early part of the 20th century Mr. Phillips witnessed first hand the raw, brutal and disgusting reality of the openly racist practices so common at the time.
It was an era when lynching, cross burning and whipping were commonplace. It was a time when schools and churches attended by African Americans were burned on a regular basis. When walking through a door in a public building could get you beaten or even killed simply for being born the “wrong” colour.
Until his rescue that night this was the reality Lanier Phillips recognized as his lot in life. He never doubted that his life would be one of bowing and scraping in gratitude on those rare occasions when good fortune might come his way. He clearly must have believed, and with good reason, that his life would be a hard and unforgiving one. A life in which success would be measured, not by his accomplishments, but by how long he could survive.
Just as surely as a newborn is nursed and cared for as it gains strength, thanks to the caring actions of his rescuers, Lanier Phillips was welcomed into a new world. A world he had not previously known existed. A world where everything suddenly seemed possible and where he would no longer be willing to settle for less than his abilities, personality and intellect demanded. A world where he knew he was just as valuable as anyone else, regardless of his skin colour.
In the decades that followed Mr. Phillips would often refer to that experience as the catalyst for changing his entire life. At public gatherings, schools and events across North America he spoke eloquently of the people who cared for him and who never looked upon him differently simply because his skin was not the same as their own.
Lanier Phillips would later become the U.S. Navy’s first African American sonar technician at a time when being a man of colour meant he was seen as inferior and best suited to supporting “regular” Navy personnel as a steward or cook rather than along side them as an equal. While Caucasians in the Navy served their Country African Americans, by and large, were expected to serve other sailors.
Phillips became an advocate for equal rights and eventually went to work for NASA as a technician in its space program.
In the more than 60 years that followed Lanier Phillips never forgot the kind actions that opened his eyes to a brighter future and he spoke often of his deep love and affection for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Before his passing Mr. Phillips visited the Province many times to share his experiences with new generations and to support local educational causes. Always a stellar ambassador for Newfoundland and Labrador he was, and is, well loved throughout the Province by those privileged enough to have known him personally and those who know of his story.
In his latter days Mr. Phillips was given an honorary Degree from Memorial University and most recently, on the 70th anniversary of the shipwreck that changed his life, he was presented with an Honorary Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Province’s highest award.
As a Newfoundlander and Labradorian I believe the tokens of appreciation the Province have bestowed upon Lanier Phillips, for his generous nature and inspiring life, were not only fitting but were in fact the very least we, as a people, could have done.
With his passing this week I can only hope that the public has the passion and resolve to do far more in his memory. As much as Lanier Phillips believed his life was inspired by his time in Newfoundland and Labrador, so to have many other lives been blessed by the inspiration he provided.
Such a wonderful person, such an exceptional Newfoundlander and Labradorian, as Lanier Phillips should never be forgotten.