Life Lines: The Lanier Phillips Story

The Compass - - OPINION - Bur­ton K. Janes bur­tonj@nfld.net

In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Aber­nathy led civil­rights marchers on their way to Mont­gomery, Ala. Among the crowd was one per­son in par­tic­u­lar who had a very real and per­sonal con­nec­tion to New­found­land. Ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­pher, years ear­lier he had learned in the prov­ince “the truth of Dr. King’s mes­sage that ev­ery per­son was his brother or sis­ter.” His name was Lanier Phillips. His story has now been told in a book, “Life Lines: The Lanier Phillips Story,” writ­ten by Chris­tine Well­don.

The au­thor lives in Nova Sco­tia where, her pub­lisher says, she brings “lit­tle-known sto­ries of Cana­dian his­tory to life for young read­ers.”

Well­don claims her nar­ra­tive voice best fits the genre of ju­ve­nilia. Her back­ground is in ed­u­ca­tion, with a spe­cialty in read­ing. She has writ­ten for news­pa­pers and has had short sto­ries pub­lished, “but this,” she says, “is my nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion.”

She de­cided to write a full-length book about Phillips be­cause, she ex­plains, “there is a rich­ness to the story in terms of the les­son it teaches; it’s a story of hero­ism, suf­fer­ing and ul­ti­mate vic­tory over the dark forces of racial ha­tred.”

When the USS Trux­tun was ship­wrecked off the coast of New­found­land in 1942, an African-Amer­i­can ser­vice­man – Lanier Phillips – was res­cued by the peo­ple in the town of St. Lawrence. The kind­ness he was shown lit­er­ally trans­formed his life.

“They changed my en­tire phi­los­o­phy on life,” he re­called late in life. “We’re crea­tures of what we’ve been taught, and th e peo­ple of S t . Lawrence taught me that I am a hu­man be­ing. It’s etched into my mind like liq­uid steel , hot steel be­come cold and solid.”

Such pal­pa­ble kind­ness ig­nited within Lanier Phillips a last­ing pas­sion for civil rights.

Well­don was in­spired by Phillips’ “mod­esty and gen­tle­ness, his use of us­ing peace­ful means to an end, of find­ing a way around his hard­ships in an hon­ourable way, his re­fusal to give up, and his con­quer­ing of his ha­tred to­wards Whites in the face of grave in­jus­tice.”

The ti­tle of Well­don’s book – “Life Lines” – speaks to the ac­tual life lines that were ex­tended by the res­cuers to the sur­vivors. But, over and above this ob­vi­ous mean­ing, this phrase sig­ni­fies that “the life lines of ev­ery­one in­volved were changed. The in­ter­ac­tion of the res­cuers with Lanier and the other sur­vivors touched ev­ery­one, and the ef­fects of that friend­ship con­tinue to the present day.”

The res­i­dents of St. Lawrence were in­stru­men­tal in help­ing Phillips “to en­vi­sion a world with­out racial ha­tred, some­thing he had never be­fore imag­ined. As a re­sult, Lanier Phillips was able to change the course of his life.”

Well­don ad­mits that “racial ha­tred has not been elim­i­nated” in this new cen­tury. “A look at the head­lines in­di­cates this,” she notes.

She hopes “young read­ers will learn from Phillips’ story that right deeds and right ac­tions are im­por­tant in the strug­gle against racism and that they must al­ways be aware of their words and deeds. Speak and act rightly,” she coun­sels. “It has a mar­velous rip­ple ef­fect that they may not be aware of.”

The folks in both St. Lawrence and Lawn went beyond the call of duty to res­cue sailors from two ves­sels, the Trux­tun and Pol­lux. Such self­less­ness is in­struc­tive in to­day’s less per­sonal and, per­haps, more nar­cis­sis­tic, so­ci­ety.

“For me,” Well­don says, “be­long­ing to a com­mu­nity is im­por­tant. I think a strong sense of com­mu­nity is vi­tal in or­der to nur­ture the val­ues and the self­less­ness shown by the peo­ple of St. Lawrence and Lawn in the larger so­ci­ety. That de­gree of car­ing has fallen by the way­side as we mi­grate to big ci­ties and lose that sense of con­nec­tion with our fel­lows. I think it’s im­por­tant to vol­un­teer – what­ever tal­ents one has, use them to help oth­ers when­ever pos­si­ble to get back in touch with com­mu­nity.”

The value of “Life Lines” is in­creased by the in­clu­sion of photographs, il­lus­tra­tions, side­bars of his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est — in­clud­ing one on racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in Canada — glos­sary, time­line, bi­b­li­og­ra­phy, sug­gested read­ing and in­dex.

An es­tab­lished, award-win­ning au­thor, Well­don has writ­ten such works as, “The Chil­dren of Africville,” “Chil­dren of the Ti­tanic” and “Re­porter in Dis­guise: The In­trepid Vic Stein­berg.”

How does she choose top­ics for her books? She doesn’t. She says the top­ics choose her.

She is cur­rently work­ing on a book about change mak­ers of the world, as well as “a new book that is just an idea at present.”

“Life Lines: The Lanier Phillips Story” is pub­lished by Break­wa­ter Books of St. John’s. Bur­ton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at

bur­tonj@nfld.net.

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