Life Lines: The Lanier Phillips Story
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