A shipwreck, a tiny town on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula and the seeds of the U.S. civil rights movement would seem to be an unusual juxtaposition. It happened way back in 1942 but had ramifications right down to present times.
On February 18, 1942 a raging winter storm, strict war-time radio silence and a course miscalculation resulted in the wreck of American war ships U.S.S. Truxtun and U.S.S. Pollux. Smashing into the 300-foot cliffs of Chamber Cove at Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula both vessels quickly submerged in the freezing North Atlantic waters.
Despite apparently hopeless conditions, 186 of the 389 seamen on the two vessels were saved thanks to the heroic efforts of the residents of the nearby mining community of St. Lawrence.
As the Truxtun sank into the sea, a group comprised of Lanier Phillips and four other black men held a frantic discussion aboard the Truxtun. They were all mess hands because in 1942 Americans of African origin were only allowed to work in the ship’s kitchen. Many ports refused to even allow the black seamen ashore, and the topic of discussion among them was whether it would be better to go down with the ship or risk being lynched or worse if they ventured ashore.
This was no idle concern for Lanier Phillips of Dekalb County, Georgia — the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and prejudice were a regular part of life in his home community. Throwing caution to the wind, he managed to make his way through oil-slick waters to the beach where he collapsed and readied himself to die.
Several white Newfoundlanders came by and Phillips prepared himself to be kicked aside as they looked for Caucasian survivors. Surprisingly he was brought to his feet, hauled up the cliff and soon found himself in the dry house of the Springs Mine where two women attempted to scrub what they thought was oil off of his unclothed body. “This poor fellow’s got the oil soaked right into his pores,” said one. Having never seen a black man before, his rescuer was in danger of taking off Phillips’ skin! Her friend quickly corrected her error.
Instead, the woman who almost scrubbed his skin off, insisted he be brought to her house where he was nursed back to health and treated as an equal.
The experience was to have a profound effect on Lanier Phillips. After he returned to the South, he was out in uniform one day and looking for a place to have lunch. He saw a restaurant where German P.O.W.’s were eating and tried to enter. A policeman threw him to the floor and put his foot on Lanier’s throat. Pulling out his pistol he forbade a uniformed American the right to eat in the same restaurant as German prisoners.
Phillips had had enough. He wrote to the sole U.S. black congressman and asked for the right to do something in the navy besides preparing food for white people. He was accepted to the U.S. Navy’s Sonar School, and he became the Navy’s first African-American sonar technician. He marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in March, 1965 and became an outspoken supporter of equal rights for blacks.
He was later honored by Newfoundland’s Memorial University with an Honourary Doctorate of Law degree.
Lanier Phillips never forgot the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland — a simple people who gave him his human dignity and confirmed his right to the level of respect due to any human being. When the Springs Mine closed, the town fell on hard times. Though not a wealthy man, Phillips scraped and saved money and returned to the town of St. Lawrence where he funded a new playground for the town’s elementary school. Appropriately, the playground was name for its benefactor.
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Photos of the U.S.S. Truxtun courtesy of The Survivor website.
Photo of Lanier Phillips, courtesy of The Southern Gazette