Monday, May 19, 2014

A Newfoundland Story: Lanier Phillips and Healing the Wound of Racism

When I checked the Winnipeg Free Press online today, I found that one of my old stories from 2012 was the fourth most popular on the site--just below a report about Justin Bieber but above one about Michael Jackson's hologram. I can't imagine any reason why; maybe a class somewhere in the U.S. has been given an assignment about Lanier Phillips, an African-American sailor who had an extraordinary experience with racial understanding in Canada in 1942. You can read about his experience from that 2012 column below.

There's an old adage for journalism that bad news always travels faster and farther than good news. That's why stories about crime, accidents, terrorism and other tragedies are more likely to make the headlines, while other stories often get less attention.

That was certainly true last month for a good news story involving an African-American sailor, a Newfoundland outport community, and a case of colour blindness that took 70 years to make the headlines.  

Lanier Phillips, who died March 12 at the age of 88, was born in rural Georgia, the great-grandson of slaves. 

As a child, he was told by his great-grandmother to never look a white man in the eye or, as he recounted her words, he'd "get a whipping, or maybe lynched."

When African-Americans in his community built a school for their children, the Ku Klux Klan burned it down. It was then, he said, he knew he had "no future" in Georgia.

In 1941, during the Second World War, the 18 year-old Phillips enlisted in the U.S. Navy. 

Life as a sailor was not much better; the U.S. Navy in the Second World War was deeply segregated. Phillips served as a mess attendant on the USS Truxton--the only position African-Americans were allowed to hold on ships. 

"The navy was as racist as the state of Mississippi," he said in an interview.

In February 1942, the Truxton and another ship, the USS Pollux, were caught in a storm off Newfoundland. The fierce waves smashed both ships against the rocks; more than 200 of the 389 sailors on board the two vessels died. 

Phillips was the only African-American to survive.

Covered in thick, dark oil, the survivors were helped ashore by people from the nearby mining town of St. Lawrence. From the beach, they were taken to the first-aid station, where women from the town gently scrubbed the oil off their skin.

As Phillips's later recounted the story, none of his rescuers had ever seen a black person before. As they scrubbed him, they thought the oil wouldn't come off. 

"Oh my, it's gotten into his pores," he remembers a woman saying.

"It's the colour of my skin--you can't get it off," Phillips told them, fearing the worst now that they knew he wasn't white. 

But they didn't stop; they treated him just like the other sailors, speaking kindly and warmly as they gently removed the oil from his skin.

Phillips was amazed. "I had never heard a kind word from a white man in my life, and I had hatred for white men," he told the Washington Post in 2010.

The experience took away his hatred of white people. 

"They just rained humanity on me," he said. "It just changed my entire philosophy of life. They changed my way of thinking and it erased all of the hatred within me."

After he recovered, Phillips went on to spend 20 years in the navy, becoming the first African-American sonar technician. He cited the kindness of the people of St. Lawrence for inspiring him to be all he could be.

After retiring from the navy, Phillips worked as a civil engineer. He also joined the civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King--again, citing his experience in Newfoundland.

"I just had to join up with Dr. King and that's because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence," he said.

Recalling King's words, Phillips said that a child exposed to racism was "wounded in mind and soul. But the people of St. Lawrence healed that wound and I have hatred for no one."

Phillips's story entered Newfoundland lore, being featured in songs, books and a documentary. But it was pretty much unknown outside of that province until his death. 

After his passing, St. Lawrence Mayor Wayne Roswell said "Lanier never forgot his unconditional welcome, love and acceptance in St. Lawrence some 70 years ago. His pursuit for a just and equal society has been a lasting effort."

Although well known in Newfoundland, it took a long time for Phillips's story to reach the rest of Canada. But even though it happened many years ago, it still speaks loudly, reminding that even the seemingly simple and small things we do for others can have important and lasting consequences.

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