“I thought about the people of St. Lawrence…”

by Yule Heibel on February 24, 2004

On Dec.7, 2001 NPR’s This American Life broadcast Lanier Phillips’s story. You can go to the site and, using the “search this site” function, find lanier. You’ll get a short synopsis of the broadcast along with an audio link, which is well worth taking the time to listen to: use the fast-forward button to jump to Lanier Phillips’s story, which is about 30 minutes into the broadcast. Phillips is the only African-American survivor of the destroyer USS Truxton, which during a blizzard on Feb. 18, 1942 crashed into 100-metre (300 foot) high cliffs off the coast of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. Waves were 25 metres (75 feet) high and the ship literally broke in half. I missed the 2001 broadcast, but my local paper ran his story, which he presented last Wednesday (Feb. 18, 2004) at the CFB Esquimalt’s Pacific Fleet Club. Phillips was speaking in Esquimalt at the Canadian Navy club in honour of Black History Awareness month and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which takes place on March 21. The article just struck me at a visceral level. Lanier Phillips was the grandson of slaves, born in Georgia on March 14, 1923. He grew up in a racist society run by the Klan. His future was limited to sharecropper, shoeshine boy, drone. He joined the navy in the hope of having a better life, but discovered that here, too, segregation was the determining force: African-Americans could be mess boys and serve white officers, but their future was limited because the fighting forces were as racially segregated as the rest of society. If you take the time to listen to the NPR broadcast, you’re in for a riveting history lesson. Anyway, off to Newfoundland. When the Truxton broke up, five African Americans clung to the ship’s wreckage, afraid to try to get ashore for fear of being lynched or hurt because of their skin colour. Phillips was the only one who took the chance, the other four died at sea rather than risk being lynched on land. He dove into the icy water, experienced a jolt of pain, made it to shore, and passed out. “I thought at least I’ll die fighting” by trying to get to shore, Phillips (now nearly 81) said. I’ll quote from the Victoria News article:

Once he reached the land, he decided that he might as well lay down and die. But it was then that a huge crowd from St. Lawrence came down to the shore, Phillips said.
What happened next completely changed Phillips’ outlook on life.
“I was looking at this man and his white face. I thought, here is a white man who wants to save my life,” he said.

Phillips was aided by the townspeople who had descended on the beach to rescue the survivors — nearly 300 died and just under 200 survived from the wreckage of two ships, the USS Truxton and the USS Pollux. He passed out again and woke up in a room surrounded by a group of white women who were bathing him — many of the rescued sailors had jumped into cold ocean waters covered with a layer of heavy black bunker C oil, which then coated the men. All were in need of cleaning. Phillips noted that if he had woken up in Georgia, naked and surrounded by white women, he would have been lynched (and the women branded and run out of town). At this point the Newfie joke aspect enters the story: one of the women helping with the rescue had never before seen an African and was puzzled that the crude oil seemed to have soaked his skin to the point of colouring it. She was determined to scrub it off, and Phillips had to tell her that, no m’am, that’s the colour of my skin. She carried on, undeterred, but at the end of the day Phillips went home to her house (if I heard the NPR interview correctly) and was disoriented when he found himself sitting at the family table, using the same china cups and plates that the family used, and was dazed (and appalled) to find himself in one of the family beds, looked after by the lady of house who didn’t seem to be afraid of being in the same room with him. He said he didn’t sleep all night, it terrified him. The next day he was given a coat and hat belonging to one of the men of the family, and he went out to inspect the scene. A photographer was taking pictures, and she insisted that he join the group of four or five white sailors she was photographing. This, too, struck Phillips as downright incomprehensible. He was being treated like a regular human being, and it completely discombobulated his world. In a good way. Back in Georgia and Florida, and still in Navy uniform, his experience became “normal” again, but it never again seemed normal to Phillips after his experiences in St. Lawrence. Once, for example, on his way to a Navy base, he stopped at a prison for German and Italian POWs, and was nearly killed by a white American officer for daring to enter the prisoners’ all-white canteen. He had wanted to enter to ask where a “coloured” gentleman could get a meal. That sort of racism was “normal,” but Phillips kept repeating, “I thought about the people of St. Lawrence” who had treated him as a normal human being instead of a sub-human. He eventually became a civil rights activist: “They taught me that I was a human being,” he said, as opposed to all the racist teaching his white “superiors” had received at home and in society. It’s all a matter of what you’re taught, in other words. A news site article points out that “The kindness of the people of St. Lawrence, the total color-blindness of the town, led young Lanier Philips [sic] to question what he’d always believed about himself.” And this business of what you believe about yourself is key to building the internal parameters for how you allow yourself to function in community. Googling Lanier Phillips I came across a couple of Christian sites that refer to Phillips’s story. In fact, one is a sermon for Ash Wednesday (which is tomorrow, as today is Fat Tuesday) — Feb. 18, 1942 was Ash Wednesday? The 2002 sermon is called The Heart of the Matter:

They rescued him from the freezing ocean and bathed him and clothed him and fed him and gave him a bed in one of their homes and checked on him throughout the night. That experience gave Lanier Phillips a new vision of how people with different skin colors could be neighbors together. That experience gave Lanier Phillips a vision of what Martin Luther King Jr. would later call the “beloved community,” in which every person would be honored as a child of God and judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. On Ash Wednesday in 1942, the people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland made their own contribution to the increase of the love of God and neighbor in the world, as they became neighbor to Lanier Phillips.

With that in mind, a final look at a website from the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY, dated Jan.13, 2002, a church that goes out of its way to welcome gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered people. Lisa Larges, DUPC’s Regional Partnership Co-ordinator, used the NPR broadcast to teach a lesson in recognising the humanity of GLBT people:

“It is not too much of a stretch to say that transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay people remember the Downtown United Presbyterian Church as Lanier Phillips remembers St. Lawrence. In the history of our movement for justice, countless women and men and many congregations large and small have contributed significantly to our this work of bringing the realm of God closer. (…)
“What Jesus knew after meeting John was the sweet, holy taste of grace. Once that divine truth is in you, you cannot go back. You cannot go back to that place when you did not know. There is an inextricable link between divine grace and human dignity.
“Suddenly we are awakened to the burden of grace. Isn’t it simpler, far less frustrating, and less exhausting, not to know of an injustice than to insist on justice in a system that refuses to yield it. . . . “Amendment after overture after debate after dialog, we run head long into that wall of our denomination’s stubborn and willful resistance to God’s wildly inclusive love. Preaching that the realm of God is at hand, Jesus preserved a special ire for those who willfully refused even to hear of it. ‘Having ears, do you not hear?’ he would say.”

…insist on justice in a system that refuses to yield it, recognise God’s wildly inclusive love, and a vision in which every person would be honored as a child of God and judged not by the color of their skin […or the orientation of their sexuality…], but by the content of their character: what interesting and useful ideas today, in the wake of fundamentalist panic over marriage licenses issued to people of different sexual orientation and the Bush Administration’s outrageous attempt to amend the Constitution to isolate and define and exclude an entire population of citizens on the basis of sexual orientation.


maria February 25, 2004 at 11:19 am

Oh, I remember this story from way back…. Thanks so much featuring it here as you are — in the context of the current debate. I hope people will keep this one in mind and tell others about it, too.

brian moffatt February 25, 2004 at 5:55 pm

“And this business of what you believe about yourself is key to building the internal parameters for how you allow yourself to function in community”

So there I am being carried on by just another post at just another blog and then you go and write something brilliant like that. Damn you!

Didn’t make me think as much as it made my thinking. Damn you!

BTW, thanks for the surprise b’day wishes. Don’t know how you did that, but much appreciated.

Jon Husband February 25, 2004 at 8:52 pm

Thanks, Yule. Lovely story.

I knew there was a reason I chose to use the Candian half of my dual citizenship when I was 18.

Yule Heibel February 26, 2004 at 2:38 am

Interesting that you picked up on that sentence, Brian — I worried it repeatedly before deciding to write it like that. I didn’t want to suggest that it’s all about how you feel about yourself (the godawful “self-esteem” trap), but rather about how you build an architecture of limits for how you can feel about yourself. I notice weird stuff all the time now, even (or especially) at this “advanced” age when certain things really “shouldn’t” matter any more (ha!, as if). For example, I wasn’t wanted, and my mother went into a spiral of depression when she found out she was pregnant with me, and it was my 6 older sisters — actually, the 5 oldest — who provided this safety net of nurturance and caring for me, but it only lasted until I was 3 because then we moved away to the sticks so my father could start a paint factory, which went bankrupt and we lost everything (i.e., not much). My 6 older sisters didn’t all come along, of the 5 surrogate mothers only 1 did, as did the one my arrival had kicked out of the baby-nest. The oldest 4 were old enough to leave home by the time this happened, but I didn’t realise until I was at least 35 or 40 that I experienced this as a kind of trauma, a loss of mothering, since suddenly I was left with this depressed real mother (I cannot for the life of me remember a single conversation I had with her) and not 5 surrogate mothers clamoring for a chance to take care of me (an emotional severing that repeated itself when we emigrated to Canada when I was 8: by this time only my 6th oldest sister was still at home to join in this new adventure that served to push my mother over the proverbial edge). I always thought that this was a natural part of my growing up, this feeling of bereftness. It took me forever to realise that a structure, a building, had been built in my psyche, with rooms that I kept going to again and again, where I bumped into the same freaking walls and banged into the same stupid furniture. And I first noticed it when a group of women whom I perceived as older and wiser (I perceive all women as older and wiser, go figure: sibling order is a powerful architect too) left me totally and utterly in the lurch in a matter pertaining to my kids’s stupid private school in Salem, Massachusetts. Suddenly I realised, “d’oh, I’m not feeling this fucked up because objectively these horrible stuck-up women acted so horribly, but because I made them into my sisters who abandoned me” — double mistake, see?, my sisters didn’t abandon me, they simply left home because they were old enough, but all those years I had been carrying around this image of being abandoned by caring women…. And I didn’t even realise how deeply I cared about not being abandoned by caring women, because that would have meant owning up to a weakness. I cared about women, I cared about feminism, I totally & absolutely believe in the Natural Superiority of Women, but I kept it at an abstract level and avoided confronting how it hurt at a personal level. That’s the structure of internal parameters, and tell me about how they do or do not allow you to function in community! I got mashed to a pulp in someone else’s comment board — by a woman whose opinion I respected no less — and I’m still recovering from that. The rage & anger I feel over this event is crippling, and I mean that literally. It has affected everything, my ability to blog, to write generally, to deal with plain old stuff, to move forward, not least because what she did was unfair, but most especially because it opened old wounds. A guy does something stupid, I blow it off because of course guys are stupid, I know that. (Before anyone feels compelled to jump in, this is rhetoric.) A woman does something hurtful and I’m on the floor for weeks: my expectations are so much higher, so much deeper. Old architecture, there you go: it was just old stuff, old ruins, old rooms.

But it’s powerful stuff. I could think of dozens of other floor plans and designs for other people’s scenarios, for multi-story (pun) and multi- or single-family buildings filled with blocked-off rooms, some with windows, some with views, some with nothing at all. “You are ______ [ fill in the blank: abandoned, not-white, female, the only son, the oldest, the youngest, Black, the “good” one, Native, poor, the “black sheep”, illegitimate, fat, not beautiful, adopted, homosexual, unwanted, whatever ] and this is your house. I, your id, built it especially for you. Live in it.”

No wonder a person wants to hang a rope from the rafters or jump out the window…

Ha, I just thought of that Talking Heads song, Burning down the house!

I guess part of what happened for Phillips was the walls falling away, crawling out of that shell, and seeing all that structure as both illusion and real. Very nearly dying and then waking up naked on a table to find yourself being washed like a baby by a bunch of women will do that to you, I guess.

And none of this self-referential psycho-babble is meant to take away from the very real limits Phillips, as an African-American, was subjected to by whites in a fundamentally supremacist and racist society. But boy, isn’t it great that he found a door in that shuttered house?

brian moffatt February 27, 2004 at 7:17 pm

We need one of those Quizzila quizzes here. Which architect is your id?

I think mine is Gaudi.

Yule, I’ve read your comment at least ten times and each time I get something new from it. It has the ring of epiphany to it.

What I think I find most appealing is the recognition of the depth of self, the tremendous amount of work and pain one needs to experience in life before one can even begin to approach individuation or self realization, or whatever – call it buddhanature for that matter. That, and the sense that there is some sort of responsibilty – wrong word – happening here. That not all blame is external and not all credit is internal. Your little gem tosses victims and egomaniacs into the dust bin at one and the same time.

Or something like that.

And to the Phillips story. There is something in his resignation, in his giving himself up to the water, while at the same determining to fight for his life that seems to me to be almost a necessary precondition for finding that door in that shuttered house.

Great stuff.

Please post it.

brian moffatt February 27, 2004 at 7:22 pm

Your comment I mean. Your story. Post that.

And btw, what’s the story about being pummelled on someone’s comment board?

Doug LeMere March 1, 2004 at 10:59 am

To all who read this, I can tell you I am a blessed person for the opportunities around me. I am the Public Affairs Specialist at the retirement community where Lanier Phillips lives. I have heard his story countless times; each time learning something new. The jumping in the water, desire to go out fighting and fuel he has to continue to share this life-changing experience is humbling.

I have travelled to San Diego, New Orleans and several venues in the south with Lanier. People gravitate to him. He never prepares notes, and truly keeps the audience on a roller-ride, bringing one to a point, climbing back to another, then returning to the initial. He tells his story in pieces and builds it like a foundation. Just as his life has run.

My most humbling thought is watching him tell the familiy in St. Lawrence how grateful he was/is for the beautiful lady who cared for him. When Lanier wells up in his thanks, I am truly touched.

I have seen the wonderful stories in the recent past where Canadians have helped during the 911 crisis. You are wonderful people and I appreciate you.

Thanks for this opportunity; for writing a wonderful article.

Doug LeMere
Public Affairs Specialist
Armed Forces Retirement Home
Gulfport, Miss.
At present I am putting together a portfolio for Lanier and spotted this article on Google. Thanks!

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