Lanier Phillips, survivor
August 28, 2007 2:53 PM   Subscribe

It sounds like a bad Newfie joke: the Newfoundlanders who had never seen a black person before and tried to scrub the colour off his skin. But the story is real: in 1942, Lanier Phillips was the only black survivor of the wreck of the USS Truxton off the coast of Newfoundland. Like the white survivors, he was half-dead and covered in oil when he arrived on shore, and the women nursing the survivors were puzzled when they could not clean the black colour off his skin. What happened next affected Phillips' self-perception and prompted him to push for equal treatment in the US Navy. He went on to become the first African American US SONAR technician, and continues today, at the age of 84, to speak across the US about his experience with the people of St. Lawrence. [previously]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (39 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Did they use momspit?
posted by miss lynnster at 3:11 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just watched the CBC documentary of the second link. Yet another story of the kind people of Newfoundland. Brings to mind the locals who took in and aided the passengers of 39 aircraft which were diverted to Gander International Airport when airspace was closed in the United States because of the events of September 11, 2001.
posted by ericb at 3:28 PM on August 28, 2007

Weird, I just listened to this episode of This American Life about two weeks ago.
posted by TrialByMedia at 3:31 PM on August 28, 2007

What a marvelous story. And yes, those Newfies don't deserve all those jokes. Good folks all the way around.
posted by etaoin at 3:39 PM on August 28, 2007

"out, out damn spade!"

posted by UbuRoivas at 3:40 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

that's unbelievable--they'd never even ever seen a movie or picture of black people?
posted by amberglow at 4:02 PM on August 28, 2007

Yeah, you'd think they'd have seen them on the internet or something...
posted by Eekacat at 4:06 PM on August 28, 2007

it was 1942--magazines and movies and newspapers existed, and were everywhere.
posted by amberglow at 4:07 PM on August 28, 2007

amberglow: in the 1940s, they wouldn't have had electricity in the town, likely, except maybe for a generator at the mine. The outports of Newfoundland were very rough. And they probably wouldn't have had any American media at all.
posted by djfiander at 4:10 PM on August 28, 2007

Also, go back and look at publications like Time or Newsweek or local papers and see how many black people are pictured in them. Or look at movies from the 1940s.

Other than the occasional servant, they're nearly nonexistent. Black people are virtually invisible.

It doesn't surprise me that Newfoundlanders wouldn't have ever seen a black person. Not at all.
posted by etaoin at 4:50 PM on August 28, 2007

Interesting fact: Newfoundland wasn't part of Canada until 1949.
posted by raising_arizona at 4:53 PM on August 28, 2007

Doesn't surprise me. My ancestral village in Nfld didn't have paved roads until the 1980's, and were on a 16- party phone line until well into the 90's.
posted by Gungho at 4:54 PM on August 28, 2007

Newfies get a bad rap in this country. I like 'em. Hard-drinking motherfuckers who will not only give you the shirt off their back, but will make sure it fits you and help you tailor it you need it, by and large. When I was in the hospital last year, my favourite nurse was the Newf. Amazing woman, took no shit from anybody, and unbelievably kind and sweet.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:20 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Trying to wash the black off a black man? Well, that's almost as silly as trying to wash the gay off a Republican congressman!

(yes, I am a Newfoundlander *sigh*)
posted by newfers at 5:25 PM on August 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Or look at movies from the 1940s.

Not to discount Phillips's veracity, but Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, the film was released in 1939, and I suspect it was known even in Newfoundland. What did they think Mammy and Prissy were, examples of negative space?
posted by rob511 at 5:28 PM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

"that's unbelievable--they'd never even ever seen a movie or picture of black people?"

You obviously have no concept of outport Newfoundland in 1942. Outside of St.John's (the capital), I doubt there very many movies being shown in Newfoundland at the time.

My mom tells a story of an old relative who was delighted to buy a radio for himself back in the early 50s. When he'd hear a song he liked, or a news story he liked, he would quickly turn the radio off, so that he could save it for later.
posted by newfers at 5:29 PM on August 28, 2007 [6 favorites]

Thanks for this story.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:31 PM on August 28, 2007

Hard-drinking motherfuckers

A former colleague from Newfoundland introduced me to Screech. Without any codfish around to kiss, I was not 'screeched in' and do not yet have a 'Screechers' certificate. Someday, though, I will!
posted by ericb at 5:41 PM on August 28, 2007

I was going to post something about many Newfoundlanders at the time not having access to movies, but on preview I see newfers beat me to it. (I love the story about your elderly relative and his radio!)

The other thing that occurred to me is that these Newfoundlanders might have seen the rare photo of a black person before, but at this non-media savvy point in time, there would have been a pretty big disconnect between a photo you saw once and being presented with a real, live human being with skin so different from your own.

Confession time: I love this story, and when I first listened to the NPR piece, I wept shamelessly. I think it really says a lot about the kindness of Newfoundlanders, who are the butt of many jokes but are incredibly warm, generous, lovely people.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:43 PM on August 28, 2007

That's an amazing story—thanks for a great post. From the second link:
He wasn't the same man after St. Lawrence. He had seen life as it could be: life as it should be. He knew that he was worthy of fair treatment and respect. He knew that a society could exist in which the color of a person's skin was irrelevant. He had seen that society, walked its streets, and been invited into its homes.

When teams of Sailors came through St. Lawrence the next day to round up the survivors of the shipwreck, Lanier realized that he was going back to the same sort of treatment that he had left behind, in both the Navy and in his own country.

Two years after the sinking of the Truxton, he was transferred to Jacksonville, Florida. When his train arrived in Jacksonville, he searched the train station for a place where a black man could buy a meal. The usual 'Colored Only' signs seemed to be missing, so he asked a Military Policeman for directions. The MP didn't know, but he directed Lanier to a hall where German and Italian prisoners of war were eating lunch, and advised him to ask one of the guards.

As soon as Lanier stepped into the hall, he was seized by a Jacksonville Policeman, and shoved to the ground. The Policeman put a boot on Lanier's neck, and threatened to shoot him in the head for daring to set foot in a room where white men were eating. Lanier was in uniform at the time. While captured enemies were treated with dignity and respect, this American serviceman in the uniform of his country lay on the ground at gunpoint, enduring threats and racial insults. Lanier's only defense was to think back to St. Lawrence, and to remind himself that he deserved better.

He continued to do his job and to endure.
Somehow, no matter how often I read about that kind of shit, it doesn't lose its capacity to enrage and appal me. WHAT THE FUCK, AMERICA?
posted by languagehat at 5:59 PM on August 28, 2007

Isn't the point not just that they'd never seen a picture of a black person, but that they didn't even know black people existed? That is, the notion that there's this place called Africa and the people who live and people who are descended from those who used to live there have dark brown skin, simply was not known? Truly, the gods must be crazy, eh?
posted by aaronetc at 6:32 PM on August 28, 2007

"From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came. I was told before arriving that I would probably be a "sight" for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are always something of a "sight" outside of the city. It did not occur to me-possibly because I am an American-that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro..."

James Baldwin, 1953: Stranger in the Village
posted by Kinbote at 6:35 PM on August 28, 2007

Somehow, no matter how often I read about that kind of shit, it doesn't lose its capacity to enrage and appal me. WHAT THE FUCK, AMERICA?
posted by languagehat at 6:59 PM on August 28

Well, we didn't realize we could exploit them in the NFL, MLB, and NBA yet at the time.
posted by Eekacat at 6:49 PM on August 28, 2007

Lanier shoulda said F.T.S. and stayed in Nfld.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:09 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with languagehat.
posted by blacklite at 7:58 PM on August 28, 2007

Heck, it wasn't that long before that Hank Greenberg had a teammate examine his head carefully for horns. I'd be kind to these kind Newfies.

In any case, it's a bit of an assumption that their reaction on washing his skin implies that they had no idea black people existed.

That said, See? It's comin' off!
posted by dhartung at 10:04 PM on August 28, 2007

I expect the Newfies would have more expected a mermaid to be pulled from the sea, than a black man. It would have been as astounding — and as hypothetical — as sighting an alien UFO.

There was a film about one of those bleak little isolated coastal towns, perched on a cliff, population of coarse fishermen, always damp and windy, nothing ever happens. Was about a girl who wanted desperately to leave. Can't for the life of me remember a name or title...
posted by five fresh fish at 10:23 PM on August 28, 2007

Wow. And I thought hanging shipwrecked monkeys was the dumbest.
It's true. There's a "photograph" and everyfink.

posted by NailsTheCat at 10:57 PM on August 28, 2007

I implore you to read a terrific travelogue: An African in Greenland.
posted by blasdelf at 12:07 AM on August 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

These stories make me cry. At the kindness of the Newfoundlanders (and to think I grew up making endless jokes about them...) and the bottomless idiocy of pre-civil rights America.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:20 AM on August 29, 2007

Is it really so hard to fathom that this "they tried to wash the black off me" story is a tall tale, half-remembered by a delirious, injured young man, himself not terribly sophisticated, who happened to be covered in engine oil?

I mean ... great story ... but please, it sounds like a just-so story.

And for all the "they didn't get out much" arguments about the Newfoundlanders ... besides belittling the Newfoundlanders themselves ... these folks had met Native Americans, yes? Were they trying to wash the brown off those people, too? Maybe they'd never see a movie, but how about a painting? How about the Bible, with its mentions of "Nubians" and Ethiopians and so forth?

Besides, have any of you seen the engine oil used in marine applications? You don't just wipe it off with a Wet-Nap. It does indeed take some scrubbing.

I pulled up the transcript. Phillips says he passes out during the event. I think it's unclear whether the nurse is referring to the oil or to the skin itself. And nobody actually says, "I tried to scrub the black off him." Instead, it's two people remembering what a third person did and said and ascribing motive to it.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And when we got ashore, I said, `Well, I made it here. I may as well die,' you know. So I just laid down there on the beach and I closed my eyes to die, you know. This is the end. And this fellow came and he said, `Get him up. Don't let him lie there.' He said, `Pick him up.' He said, `He'll surely die if he lays there.' He said, `Walk him around.' So he pulled me up, and he had on a cap and a coat. I knew he wasn't Navy, and he began to walk me around, and from there he brought life to me. I said, `Man, here's a white person wants me to live,' you know. If I had been in Georgia, they'd say, `Kick him out of the way,' you know, `Let's help these white people.' Then I think I passed out.

Ms. EDWARDS: They took them to the--well, there was a temporary first-aid station erected and, of course, the call came to the women, all the women of the place to go out to clean them. And that's where the story came in at Lanier. Now there's a little funny story. See, he was there among all the other survivors. The ladies were cleaning them up and scrubbing them up, because they were covered with tar, with this oil stuff, this crude oil. They were so filthy, every part of them had to be washed. So when he opened his eyes...

Mr. PHILLIPS: I could see these white ladies all around. There I was, stark naked, on this table. And I heard one of the ladies say, `This is the curliest hair I've ever seen.' I said, `Oh, boy, this is the end of me,' you know. I said, `Hell, they're going to say, "Get him out of here. He's black,"' you know. And then she said...

Ms. EDWARDS: `This poor fellow. The tar went right into his pores. I'm scrubbing and scrubbing and I can't get him clean.'

Mr. PHILLIPS: And when I spoke up, she said, `I can't get it'--I said, `Well, you can't get it off. It's the color of the skin.'

Ms. EDWARDS: And she said, `Oh, I'll get it off, all right,' and so she continued to scrub. And Violet White, but she's dead now, she had never seen a black man before. So, I mean, she didn't differentiate. She just thought he was a white man with the black into his pores so bad she couldn't get it out.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:51 AM on August 29, 2007

five fresh fish wrote: There was a film about one of those bleak little isolated coastal towns, perched on a cliff, population of coarse fishermen, always damp and windy, nothing ever happens. Was about a girl who wanted desperately to leave. Can't for the life of me remember a name or title...

Sounds like New Waterford Girl, although that was set in Nova Scotia, not Newfoundland. Wonderful movie.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:03 AM on August 29, 2007

In about 1951, my mother sold Avon in a black neighborhood, and she left me in the car with the windows rolled down in the shade. (You could do that back then.) I was missing when she got back, and she found me in the kitchen next door. The neighborhood kids had taken me in the house and were looking at my hands, because they were the same color on the top as the bottom, and had taken my shoes off to see if my feet looked like that too. They were feeding me soul food, which was so close to white trash cooking it was just like home. Being about 4, I didn't care. These kids knew about white people, they just never got a chance to look at one up close before. (Those kids weren't much older than I was, so it was something cool to them.)
I am sure the newfies knew about black people, but they had probably never seen one, and it probably hadn't ocurred to them that they might run into one, so it's not much of a stretch that they probably did scrub a while before they realized the rest of it was permanent.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:11 AM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just read that article by James Baldwin written in the 50's linked above in the post. Brought back something I haven't thought about in years.

In the mid 80's I was living in a very small village for refugees in Bavaria. I was a small boy but still remember my first encounter with an African. Sitting by the window a dark figure appeared on the road by the apartment building. After I gained some control of the burning fire of excitement and curiosity that came over me, I ran around the house screaming for everyone to come look. Then we went out to say the only German word i knew, "Hallo! hallo hallo hallo hallo!!" This poor guy. Quite normal after that though, at least from my perspective.

I'm not sure what we can learn from that except that, in some places and for some people, this kind of thing still occurred recently and likely still does -- and not just for the children as I know some adults at the time hadn't seen a black man or woman before.
posted by romanb at 6:32 AM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

That's it, Hurdy Gurdy Girl! NS, not NFLD? Would that mean NFLD is even more bleak?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:40 AM on August 29, 2007

What the fuck? indeed.
posted by sudama at 8:08 AM on August 29, 2007

five fresh fish: I thought it was either New Waterford Girl or Margaret's Museum...which I was surprised to find was also set in NS, not Nfld!

A friend of mine grew up in small town NS, and she said New Waterford Girl was very accurate, except the town she grew up in was even smaller and there was even less going on.

sudama: That link has a beautiful picture and such an ugly story. Sigh.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:37 AM on August 29, 2007

What the fuck? indeed.

My post here on the Jena events (still ongoing, btw)
posted by amberglow at 11:52 AM on August 29, 2007

Other than the bleak ocean view, NWG could just as easily been any tiny, rural town in Canada.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:50 PM on August 29, 2007

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