Photograph of Lanier Phillipps on a visit to the site site of the Truxtun disaster at Chambers Cove, near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, May 31, 2008 (Photo by Carmelita and Wayde Rowsell).
Kindness possesses a strength like no other. It will always remain a brilliant light able to penetrate even the darkest and stormiest nights. One such night was looming for the people of St. Lawrence on the 18th February, 1942. And it wouldn’t only be the whipping wind and snow the people would have to face. Together, their strength and fortitude would certainly be tested. And in the end, their unified spirit would bestow a gift of unrivalled distinction.
The night of the 18th was of no great note really. The wind was roaring and a blizzard was digging into the small community. They knew the drill. Just get to bed and wait it out. They’d certainly experienced much the same in the past.
However, elsewhere, just off shore, the blizzard was about to turn the tide for a few hundred sailors aboard the Pollux and Truxton. Things began when at 4:10 am the U.S.S. Truxton ran aground near St. Lawrence. Part of the war effort, it had been a support ship for the Pollux, a ship carrying a vital cargo of explosives, radio equipment, aircraft engines, and other materials for the war effort. It also ran aground and sheer horror ensued.
What happened next was an exercise of great spirit that delved deep into the human reserves of compassion and humanity. After the first survivors of the disaster made it to St. Lawrence, word got out and soon everyone went into high gear. The people of St. Lawrence wasted no time in getting to the rugged cliffs where the bitter and unrelenting storm wreaked havoc on the sailors desperate to make it to shore.
The people from St. Lawrence risked their own lives hauling men out of the water and afterwards, they ferried them to the make-shift First Aid stations quickly established at the Iron Springs mine. Here, they were warmed and their immediate needs addressed. Soon they were moved on to the various homes within St. Lawrence where they were further nursed in order for them to better recuperate.
For Lanier Phillips, the good deeds of the people from St. Lawrence brought to bear the true power of kindness and compassion. Born in Lithonia, Georgia, Mr. Phillips was a man whose dark skin had always marked him as essentially an unwanted degenerate to those of a lighter skin colour. Originally, he had thought he was off the coast of Iceland where he knew those of “his kind” were not permitted ashore.
But when he found himself in need of help, the people of St. Lawrence granted him an assistance yoked not to hatred and viciousness. Instead, it was one linked to a genuine sincerity and kindness, something reflective of the true and pure bond that exists between humans. He was perplexed.
Mr Phillips had been born in the Deep South into a cutting world sharply divided according to the colour of your skin. Mr. Phillips had known no other world—until he arrived on that fateful night in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and Labrador where the rules of the game were quite different.
For the people of St. Lawrence, deeply embedded in their own lives, guided by fishing and mining, these harsh divisions did not exist. Most likely, many had never even seen anyone of a different skin colour! And so, the weighted yoke of prejudice did not exist. Thus, the only rule of interaction for those of St. Lawrence was simple, instinctive, yet beautiful. Upon setting eyes on Lanier Phillips, the colour of his skin didn’t matter. Instead, they saw a man in need of help. Naturally, they tended to his needs, nursing him, as well as countless other sailors fleeing the sinking ships back to health.
To Mr. Phillips, it was astonishing. No one had ever treated him this way before—like a fellow human. Their behaviour, as well as those of Lawn, a neighbouring community who also assisted, did not fit in the world he had come to know as the norm.
Because their actions and demeanour were so starkly opposed to anything he had once known, the kindness they showed was that much more poignant and meaningful. Prior to meeting the people in Newfoundland, Mr. Phillips had only ever encountered sentiments of disdain, hatred, disregard, and unkindness. Instead, when shipwrecked off the coast the Burin peninsula, he faced the warmth of compassion, sincerity, and genuine goodwill. And these sentiments have a way of travelling.
His experience with the people of St. Lawrence and Lawn would go on to have a life-changing effect on Lanier Phillips. Their kindness told him that what he had experienced for most of his life was not only not the norm. There was another way. As he had once told CBC, “They changed my way of thinking and it erased all of the hatred within me.”
The sentiment the people of St. Lawrence engendered also played a big part in his future role in the civil rights movement of the United States. He explained how due to his experiences during the tragedy of the Pollux and Truxton, he felt driven to join the efforts of Martin Luther King. It was simply “because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence.” Such is the power of kindness.
Moreover, it made Mr. Phillips realise he was more than simply a “mess attendant,” the role those of his skin colour were customarily given in the army. He rejected these restrictions and instead, he went on to become a sonar technician, something that was a first for someone of his skin colour. He would pave the way for others. In later years, he would give speeches across the United States regarding his range of experiences throughout his life.
Here, actions of kindness had the strength to change one man’s life. It was nothing the people of St. Lawrence and Lawn intended to do. But like a simple smile, the fortitude their actions possessed was enough to change the world.