Bill Cosby struck by N.L. rescue story
- Story was originally published on Aug. 27, 2009.
Comedian Bill Cosby is bringing attention to the story of a small group of Newfoundlanders whose actions taught a black American decades ago that racism didn't exist everywhere.
Cosby recently brought Lanier Phillips onstage to tell his story, after he heard about the experience Phillips had in Newfoundland nearly 70 years ago.
It was during the Second World War, in 1942; Phillips was a 19-year-old African-American deckhand on the USS Truxtun when it and another ship, the USS Pollux, ran aground near St. Lawrence, on the province's south coast.
Phillips, who had known only racism to that point in his life, was one of only 46 people to survive the wreck.
He feared he would be lynched when rescuers brought him ashore, but instead, he was taken in to local homes, and the women of the community cared for him until he was well enough to leave.
He said the kindness he was shown when he was hauled ashore taught him that racism could be overcome.
Cosby told CBC News that he was intrigued when he heard the story.
"I wanted to know more because I thought it was the story of this black man and these women who had never seen this colour skin before," he said.
The story of how Phillips was treated in Newfoundland has been told in documentaries and television programs.
One of those programs was seen by Cosby, who this summer sent a limousine to the retirement home where Phillips lives near Washington, D.C., to bring him to a show Cosby was performing in nearby Virginia.
Cosby then brought Lanier onstage to introduce him to the audience and tell his story.
Cosby — who was stationed at a U.S. military base in Newfoundland for a brief time in the '50s — said he was especially struck when he heard Phillips say that the women of St. Lawrence tried to scrub him down after he was rescued, because they thought the colour of his skin was dirt from the shipwreck.
"But trying to scrub it off and clean it," Cosby said, "which it turns out to be not a novelty story as much as a story about a change that comes to a human being because of a difference in the way the human being is treated, and how it opens up very positive feelings in a human being."
Phillips is 86 years old now, and he has often said that the people of Newfoundland didn't just save his life, they changed it.
"To experience instantly love and humanity that I didn't think existed between the races — it just changed everything for me."
After Phillips was rescued, he had a 20-year career in the navy and became an active member of the U.S. civil rights movement.
He credits the people of St. Lawrence for his success.
Cosby calls it a wonderful story.
"There's no way when you listen to his story there's a superiority of anything except human beings helping human beings," Cosby said. "Just about human beings and the power that human beings have when they work to save each other."
A U.S. film producer is now hoping to turn the story of what happened to Phillips into a full-length film.