Shipwreck survivor recalls how town altered his idea of race

Lanier W. Phillips, 87, is a retired navy sonar technician and oceanographer whose life was changed when his ship was wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland in 1942. Having grown up with the sting of racism in Georgia and in the U.S. Navy, his view of life changed when, to his amazement, he was treated with care and humanity by residents of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010

The woman cradled Lanier W. Phillips's head in her arm as if he were a baby, gently feeding the shipwrecked sailor hot soup she had brewed to help save his life. "Swallow," she said gently. "Swallow."

Phillips could scarcely believe what was happening: a white woman caring for a black man as if he were her son. Back home in Georgia, he thought, she could have been run out of town, and he could easily have been lynched.

But Phillips wasn't in Georgia. He was in the tiny coastal mining community of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, with its population of about 1,000. It was February 1942. He was an 18-year-old Navy mess attendant, steeped in the segregation of the American South and the U.S. Navy. Yet as he rested in the tender care of a rural housewife named Violet Pike, the course of his life, he said, was altered forever.

Scarred in the crucible of racism, he vowed to live like the people who saved him.

On Wednesday night in the District, Phillips, 87, a retired oceanographer, civil rights activist and the Navy's first black sonar technician, received one of the U.S. Navy Memorial's Lone Sailor awards for Navy veterans who have had distinguished civilian careers.

Other recipients were comedian Bill Cosby, who once served as a Navy hospital corpsman, and former Washington Redskins star Eddie LeBaron, who was an officer in the Marines.

Past recipients have included presidents, admirals and members of Congress.

But Phillips, who was the lowest of the low in the segregated Navy of World War II, also has a powerful story he has made it his mission to tell. Mess attendants were essentially officers' waiters, said Phillips, a resident of Washington's Armed Forces Retirement Home. They were trained to polish silverware and shoes and to serve meals. They were forced to wear bow ties, he said, and were not permitted to wear brass buttons on their coats. Their buttons could only be black.

Many attendants were African Americans, and as such were relegated to bunking in segregated portions of their ships. "The Navy was as racist as the state of Mississippi," he said. But even the most junior mess attendant had a battle station. His was on a large gun mounted on the ship's bow, where he used special gloves to grab hot expended shell casings and throw them overboard.

"You never hear anything about the Navy mess attendant," he said. "They were the fightingest African American group of any military service. And every Navy Cross that was given out to blacks was [to] a Navy mess attendant."

Phillips, the son of a sharecropper and the great-grandson of a slave, grew up in a three-room house with no running water in Lithonia, Ga., east of Atlanta. There, he said, he saw the Ku Klux Klan terrorize black communities and burn down the black school. There, his great-grandmother cautioned him, "never look a white man in the eye. . . . If you do you'll get a whipping, or maybe lynched," he said.

He had to move to the home of an aunt in Chattanooga, Tenn., just to attend a segregated elementary school. He joined the Navy in October 1941. "I was glad to get away from the South," he said, and the Navy "was the lesser of two evils."

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