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Exemplar of determination, compassion and hope

Oration honouring Lanier Phillips
Friday May 30, 3 p.m.

We all have an idea of the popular image of a hero: someone who risks life and limb in a crisis situation in order to make a dramatic rescue. It might be a firefighter carrying a child from a burning building, or a soldier putting country and comrades before self. It might even be a character in colourful tights and cape arriving just in the nick of time to avert certain disaster. A hero is someone we admire and wish to emulate, at least in our daydreams. If we were at the right place at the right time, if we had been bestowed with those super powers, certainly we could accomplish those same heroic feats.

There is another kind of hero, one who is rarely in the headlines or on the evening news. Rather, these heroes persevere despite all obstacles, day after day, year after year, at tasks that are far from glamorous. In fact these heroes are as likely to garner abuse as accolades for their efforts to improve the lot of those around them. The gentleman we celebrate this afternoon is one of these quiet heroes.

Lanier Phillips was born in Lithonia, Georgia, in 1923. The great-grandson of slaves, he grew up in an environment in which African Americans were only nominally free. The Ku Klux Klan paraded through town weekly, firing guns in the air. Blacks were regularly whipped and beaten as punishment for the smallest infraction of Klan-imposed standards of behaviour. When the black families of the town managed to build a school for their children (the state did not fund education for African Americans), the Klan promptly burned it down. Young Lanier saw life as a sharecropper as his only option.

When the United States entered World War II, Phillips, like so many other young men from impoverished families, saw enlistment in the armed forces as a way to improve his prospects. In 1941, at the age of 18, he joined the Navy. But he found life there was little better than his civilian experience. African American sailors were only allowed to serve as steward’s mates, essentially servants to the officers. They were relegated to separate quarters and facilities, literally “kept in their place.”

Instead of following a plow, Mr. Phillips was scrubbing pots and polishing shoes as his ship, the Truxton, was steaming towards Argentia. It was a typical Newfoundland winter morning that Ash Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1942. A fierce blizzard was raging and visibility was a few hundred meters at best. The Truxton, with no radar, and running under radio silence to evade German U boats in the area, ran aground in Chambers Cove, near St. Lawrence, on the Burin Peninsula.

As the seas pounded the ship onto the rocks, desperate attempts were made to launch the lifeboats. Some were smashed against the ship, lines fouled on others and they had to be cut loose. One by one, the remaining boats filled and set for shore. Still on deck stood Lanier Phillips and four companions, three blacks and one Filipino. They held back, not for fear of the sea, but for fear of what lay beyond. They thought they might be in Iceland, where, they had been told, Blacks were not allowed. They feared they would be lynched if they stepped foot onshore. As the last lifeboat was preparing to leave, Mr. Phillips urged them to get in and at least die fighting. But they chose to wait in hopes of being rescued by the Navy. Sadly, rescue did not come in time, and Mr. Phillips was the only African American to survive the wreck of the Truxton.

Exhausted, drenched and chilled to the bone, Mr. Phillips collapsed on shore, preparing to die. He was aware of men clambering down the icy cliff on ropes, and hauling his shipmates back up, but they were white people, helping white people. He drifted in and out of consciousness, expecting to be left to die. And then the most unbelievable thing happened. He awoke to find women in a makeshift infirmary tending to him, the same as for the white men. He was given dry clothing, ate at table with a white family, and finally tucked into a bed where he lay awake all night. It wasn’t the cold that kept him awake, nor was it the howling storm, nor even the indelible images of the horrific event still haunting his memory. It was fear. Fear that he would soon be discovered and killed.

It became clear that the people of St. Lawrence saw him as an equal. All his life, he had been treated as an inferior being. There was no other reality. Now, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis in reverse, he awoke to a new reality, one in which a black man could hold his head up as an equal to any other. Mr. Phillips resolved to live in this new reality.

But this is a true story, not a fairy tale, and the world did not magically change to accommodate Mr. Phillips’ nascent self-respect. He was accosted for presuming to sit in front of a white man on a bus. An MP threw him to the ground and threatened to shoot him for daring to approach a dining area where whites – German and Italian prisoners of war – were eating. But with quiet dignity, Lanier Phillips continued to behave as if all people were created equal.

After 17 years of scrubbing and polishing, he knew the Navy was not going to change unless someone made it change and that he could be that someone. He informed the Bureau of Naval Personnel that he was qualified for technical training. With the help of the first African American U.S. Congressman, he secured an assignment to Sonar School. But again, there was no fairy tale ending awaiting him. Security clearance necessary for the school took an inordinately long time to complete, as few governments kept civil documents regarding their Black citizens. While he was waiting for clearance, Mr. Phillips was cajoled, demeaned, threatened and finally offered a substantial bribe in an attempt to get him give up his place in sonar training.

Nonetheless he persevered. An essentially self-educated man competing with college graduates, he knew he had to work much harder than his classmates. But he realized that he was working not just for himself. If he failed, it would be even harder for the next individual who tried to break through discrimination barriers.

In 1957, he became the first African American sonar technician in the U.S. Navy.

Even with his new status, he was forced to continue insisting on his rights as an equal even while demonstrating that non-whites were every bit as capable as white sailors at complex and responsible jobs.

After 20 years in the service, Mr. Phillips retired to civilian life and continued a successful career in sonar technology, working with Jacques Cousteau and the ALVIN deep-water submersible team. He was active in the Civil Rights movement, joining Martin Luther King’s historic march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. He continues to speak out against discrimination with audiences from school children to military men. That today the U.S. Navy is a model of equal opportunity is due in no small part to the efforts and example of Lanier Phillips.

Vice Chancellor, in recognition of his meritorious military service, his courageous efforts towards ending racial discrimination, and his life as an exemplar of determination, compassion and hope, I present to you, for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, a hero of our times, Lanier Phillips.

Kjellrun Hestekin
University orator