“No M’am. That’s the color of my skin”.
Dr. Lanier Phillips
In tumultuous waters, punishing winds and a blizzard of snow, the most influential black person to impact the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was thrust upon its daggered shores on February 18, 19421. During World War II, two American naval ships, the Pollux and the Truxtun, were propelled against the cliffs near the small mining town of St. Lawrence on the Burin Peninsula. On board the Truxtun were only four black men2. At a time of segregation and racism these men had not been permitted to go ashore when docked so when the Truxtun began sinking only one black man took that chance – eighteen year old, Lanier Phillips3. He grew to become an influential civil rights activist in the world as a result of the fateful blizzard off the coast of Newfoundland. Myles Higgins, in 2012, stated “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.”4
The story of Lanier Phillips is both inspirational and personal. Of the 389 men on board of these ships, 203 died5. The remaining men were rescued by the brave people of St. Lawrence and Lawn, neighbouring communities, who fought driving winds, sleet and snow to haul these men out of oil slicked waters up the steep cliffs where they were then dragged through snow to safety. One of these brave people was my great-grandfather, Frederick Edwards, a navy veteran of World War I and one of the rescued men, the only black man, was Lanier Phillips.
Mr. Phillips was first taken to the local mine with all of the other men who had been pulled from the waters. Lanier, himself, described his fear of being a black man in the company of a white woman. With little clothes on, he said the woman scrubbed his body to remove the black oil. He looked at her nervously and stated, “No M’am. That’s the colour of my skin.”6 He was the first black person she had ever seen. From there he was taken into her home and welcomed. The man who had to stand up to eat aboard the Truxtun was being cradled in a white woman’s arms and spoon fed soup. His experience was life-changing. He said he had never in his life been treated with humanity, respect and kindness. It was the first time in his life that he felt his life was worth as much as anyone else’s, regardless of the colour of his skin7.
The people of this small town removed hatred from his heart. Mr. Phillips said the experience of their kindness gave him dreams and ambition. Lanier could no longer accept discrimination in his life. He would go on to fight racial discrimination in his own career and became the first black sonar technician in the US Navy. He fought personally alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights8. Lanier persevered because he knew life could be different. He had experienced it in St. Lawrence. He was a voice against oppression and discrimination speaking throughout North America to adults and children. He was granted an honorary doctorate from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2008 and given honorary membership in the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011. “The Order of Newfoundland and Labrador is the highest honour that the Province can bestow on its citizens… to recognize individuals who have demonstrated excellence and achievement in any field of endeavour benefiting, in an outstanding manner, Newfoundland and Labrador and its residents.”9
Lanier Phillips never forgot the people from the town of St. Lawrence and visited there many times. The people of this province feel that Lanier Phillips gave as much to them as he had received. For a community that had never seen a black person, they did not discriminate and they are proud of this. Newfoundland each year welcomes immigrants with rich diversity and I believe Dr. Lanier Phillips played a significant role in this. Higgins wrote, “This week marks the sad passing of a great Newfoundlander and Labradorian, Mr. Lanier Phillips, who passed away on Monday at the age of 88”10. That kind woman never could wash away the color from Lanier Phillips’ skin, nor could he, but for the first time in his life, it didn’t matter.
1 Brown, Cassie. Standing into Danger. Toronto: Doubleday, Canada, 1985.
2 Maritime History Archive (2010) Dead Reckoning: The Pollux-Truxtun Disaster https://www.mun.ca/mha/polluxtruxtun/ack.php
3 Maritime History Archive (2010) Dead Reckoning: The Pollux-Truxtun Disaster https://www.mun.ca/mha/polluxtruxtun/ack.php
4 Higgins, Myles (2012). Newfoundland and Labrador Remembers Lanier Phillips. Canada Free Press https://canadafreepress.com/article/newfoundland-labrador-remembers-lanier-phillips
5 Brown, Cassie. Standing into Danger. Toronto: Doubleday, Canada, 1985.
6 Dohey, Larry (2018). “Truxton and Pollux: “No m’am, that’s the colour of my skin.” Archival Moments http://archivalmoments.ca/2018/02/truxton-and-pollux-no-mam-thats-the-colour-of-my-skin/
7 Ruane, Michael (2010). Shipwreck survivor recalls how town altered his idea of race. September 16, 2010: The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/15/AR2010091507189.html
8 Edwards, Jeff (2018) Quiet hero: Lanier Phillips https://www.military.com/navy/quiet-hero-lanier-phillips.html
9 Government NL (2018) https://www.gov.nl.ca/onl/
10 Higgins, Myles (2012). Newfoundland and Labrador Remembers Lanier Phillips. Canada Free Press https://canadafreepress.com/article/newfoundland-labrador-remembers-lanier-phillips