LITHONIA, Georgia—One last time, a month before he died on March 12 at age 88, Dr. Lanier Phillips visited the Newfoundland village that changed his life 70 years ago.
Though frail, Phillips insisted on climbing the steep cliff where in 1942 he survived the wreck of the USS Truxton, according to Wayde Rowsell, mayor of St. Lawrence.
“He was strong-willed, you know,” said Rowsell, who attended Phillips’s funeral in Lithonia, Georgia, on March 17.
Phillips joined the Navy to escape the South, even though at that time the U.S. military only allowed African-Americans to be messmen—cooking and serving food.
Growing up in segregated Georgia, Phillips had known the cruelty of racism and bigotry. The Ku Klux Klan burned down his school. A man once slashed his mother’s and aunt’s tires and pushed their car off the road with a truck after the two ran out of gas, according to Phillips’s uncle, Louis Woodall.
“He never said anything bad about people. He was a crusader for justice, and that’s what I loved about him so much,” said Woodall.
He described their childhood as a world of mules, penny candy, home fruit orchards, fishing holes, and men who would slash tires “just to do damage. … The Ku Klux Klan was on the rage in that time.”
When the USS Truxton and the USS Pollux went aground in a snowstorm off Newfoundland in February 1942, the people of Lawn and St. Lawrence rescued Phillips and others. Violet Pike took him into her home, cleaned him, and spoon-fed him.
The kindness he experienced in Canada was a revelation, he said.
“Being rescued that day changed my life. And it wasn’t just being alive. … It was the treatment I got from the people of that town. They treated me, for the first time in my life, just like they treated every other person rescued. … They knew nothing about racism and segregation. They treated me like a person, a worthy human being, and for me, it was life-altering,” said Phillips, quoted on the official blog of the U.S. Navy.
From then on, the strong-willed Phillips began his fight to be treated as a worthy human being. He desegregated the Navy, becoming the first African-American sonar technician.
From there, Phillips and Woodall marched and worked for civil rights and racial equality alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King.
After his naval career, he continued to work as a respected oceanographer, according to his son, Terry Phillips, who said his father was a model for lifelong learning.
“I remember watching him and his grandson do their homework together when he was in his 70s,” said Terry. He took classes at MIT after he left the Navy and later studied real estate law in order to help his family handle problems with land titles.
“My father loved education. He always worked to improve his understanding of the world,” said Terry, adding that his dad worked to improve other people’s understanding, too, travelling to tell his historic story “even when he wasn’t up to it.”
Phillips travelled all over North America to tell his story, said Rowsell. Selflessly, he gave recognition and honour to others, including those who saved his life, said Lt. Jack Barrett, a chaplain in the Canadian Navy.
Rowsell and Barrett journeyed from Newfoundland to pay their respects at the Lithonia church Phillips attended as a child.