A World without Racism: The Story of Lanier Phillips

by J-Mirabelli

Lanier Phillips, left, Bill Cosby and Ed LeBaron pose for a picture before receiving the Lone Sailor Award at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Lone Sailor award is presented to sea service veterans who have excelled with distinction in their respective civilian careers while continuing to exemplify the Navy core values of honor, courage and commitment.

Lanier Phillips, a black U.S. serviceman who has credited his 1942 rescue off Newfoundland as transforming his life and igniting a passion for civil rights, died Monday, March 12th, 2012. Phillips, who was 88, passed away at a military retirement home in Gulfport, Miss. He was two days shy of his 89th birthday.

Two hundred and three people died on Feb. 18 1942, when two U.S. warships, USS Truxtun and USS Pollux, were caught in an icy winter storm and ran aground off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, near the towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn.

There were 186 survivors. Philips was a crew member on the Truxtun. St. Lawrence residents trying to rescue the seamen found him on the shoreline.

He was taken to a home and given a warm bath. As he tells the story, women there gave him a rough scrubbing, trying to remove what they thought was oil from the ship because they didn’t know his skin was black.

He said once people realized he was black, they still treated him like anyone else.

Warmly embraced by rescuers from the Burin Peninsula towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn, Phillips often said the experience opened his eyes to a world beyond the harsh racism he encountered in the South.

“Had it not been for the people of St. Lawrence, I would have had no family,” Phillips said during a 2008 visit to the area.

“They changed my way of thinking and it erased all of the hatred within me,” Phillips said when he came to Newfoundland to take part in a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Pollux-Truxtun disaster.

“Because of that tragedy, I joined up with Dr. [Martin Luther] King. I just had to join up with Dr. King and that’s because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence.”

His story has been celebrated internationally and become part of mythology of Newfoundland – told repeatedly in plays, books, radio and television documentaries.

In 2008, Phillips was awarded an honorary degree from Memorial University in St. John’s and was an honorary member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 2009 comedian Bill Cosby, intrigued by the story of Phillips, sent a limousine to the retirement home where Phillips lived near Washington, D.C., to bring him to a show Cosby was performing in nearby Virginia.

Cosby then brought Lanier onstage to introduce him to the audience and tell his story.

Cosby – who was stationed at a U.S. military base in Newfoundland for a brief time in the ’50s – said he was especially struck when he heard Phillips say that the women of St. Lawrence tried to scrub him down after he was rescued, because they thought the color of his skin was dirt from the shipwreck.

“But trying to scrub it off and clean it,” Cosby said, “which it turns out to be not a novelty story as much as a story about a change that comes to a human being because of a difference in the way the human being is treated, and how it opens up very positive feelings in a human being.”

“There’s no way when you listen to his story there’s a superiority of anything except human beings helping human beings,” Cosby said. “Just about human beings and the power that human beings have when they work to save each other.”

Read more:

Newfoundland commemorates 1942 marine disaster

Bill Cosby struck by Newfoundland rescue story

The story of Lanier Phillips – YouTube

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