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Lanier W. Phillips

Sonar technician Lanier Phillips was born on March 14, 1923, in Lithonia, Georgia, to sharecroppers. Phillips attended the Yellow River School, the only colored school in DeKalb County, until it was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1929. As a remedy, Phillips was sent to live with relatives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1932; there he attended Main Street Elementary School and Howard High School in Chattanooga until he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941, at the age of eighteen, in order to escape the rigors of sharecropping in the South.

In the Navy, Phillips faced strict segregation. After boot camp, aboard the U.S.S. Truxton, Phillips began working in the mess hall alongside other sailors of color. In February 1942, the U.S.S. Truxton, the Pollux, and the Wilkes capsized off the coast of Newfoundland; 110 sailors were killed aboard the Truxton alone. Phillips was the sole African American survivor, finding refuge aboard the last raft. A group of Canadian townspeople rescued Phillips and 185 white sailors. Phillips would go on serve in battle with the U.S. Navy several times throughout the course of World War II.

In the 1950s, Phillips applied to the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Sonar School; he received a letter of recommendation to this post from Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan. In 1957, Phillips became the U.S. Navy’s first black sonar technician. Phillips retired from the U.S. Navy in 1961, and began work as a civil technician with EG & G, a systems engineering firm; at this time he also began work with the ALVIN deep water submersible team. Phillips later joined the deep sea exploration team of Jacques Cousteau and assisted in the development of deep sea lamp technology.

During the 1960s, Phillips marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama. In 1977, after his wife’s death, Phillips sought relief from the growing racial tensions of northern cities, so he moved his family to his hometown of Lithonia, Georgia.

Lanier Phillips passed away on May 20, 2012.

Accession Number

A2007.219

Sex

Male

Interview Date

7/29/2007

Last Name

Phillips

Maker Category
Middle Name

Walter

Occupation
Schools

Howard High School

Yellow River School

Main Street Elementary School

Howard School of Academics and Technology

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Lanier

Birth City, State, Country

Lithonia

HM ID

PHI02

Favorite Season

All Seasons

State

Georgia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Brazil

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

3/14/1923

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Seafood

Death Date

5/20/2012

Short Description

Sonar technician Lanier W. Phillips (1923 - 2012 ) was with the U.S. Navy in World War II, where he became the first African American sonar technician. In his civilian career, Phillips worked on the development of ALVIN deep water submersible, and deep sea lamp technologies.

Employment

U.S. Navy

EG&G

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Lanier W. Phillips' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Lanier W. Phillips lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Lanier W. Phillips describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Lanier W. Phillips describes the racial violence in Lithonia, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Lanier W. Phillips describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his experiences of racial violence in Lithonia, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls the burning of the Yellow River School by the Ku Klux Klan

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about his schooling in Lithonia, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers attending school in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers Howard High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls visiting his family in Lithonia, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Lanier W. Phillips recall his decision to enlist in the U.S. Navy

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about his education

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls joining the U.S. Navy

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his first year in the U.S. Navy

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about his early voyages in the U.S. Navy

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers the shipwreck of the USS Truxtun

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Lanier W. Phillips describes how he survived the wreck of the USS Truxtun

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his recovery in Canada after the wreck of the USS Truxtun

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about returning to the United States after the wreck of the USS Truxtun

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his combat experiences during World War II

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers the end of World War II

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his experiences of discrimination after World War II

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his racist commanding officer in the U.S. Navy

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls the U.S. Navy's treatment of African Americans

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about recognition for his service on the USS Truxtun

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers entering the Fleet Sonar School

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls graduating from Flight Sonar School in Key West, Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about working as a sonar technician in the U.S. Navy

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his work with Jacques Cousteau, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Lanier W. Phillips recalls his work with Jacques Cousteau, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about his wife and children

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Lanier W. Phillips describes the community of Selma, Alabama

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about raising his children in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Lanier W. Phillips remembers moving to Georgia after his wife's death

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Lanier W. Phillips talks about his work as a motivational speaker

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Lanier W. Phillips reflects upon his life

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Lanier W. Phillips describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Lanier W. Phillips shares a message to future generations

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Lanier W. Phillips narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$3

DAStory

6$4

DATitle
Lanier W. Phillips recalls his experiences of racial violence in Lithonia, Georgia
Lanier W. Phillips describes how he survived the wreck of the USS Truxtun
Transcript
Well Adeline and Eli [Phillips' paternal grandparents, Adeline Phillips and Eli Phillips] (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Both were--$$--were alive during emancipation?$$Oh yes, yes, yes.$$Did they tell stories about emancipation?$$No, they never told me that. The only thing they, they told me was, seemed like all negative things, you know? She'd tell me to never look the white man in the eye, you know, or I'll get a whipping, you know? And never dispute him regardless to what he said, or what, if I--because they would lynch me or beat me, or what say, and I might as well, you know, never look him in the eye, and say, yes sir, regardless to the age. Say if I, you could be twenty-five years old, and a five year old white boy, you would say, yes sir, and you know, mister you know, things like that. Now I do remember as a child I would go uptown, they had a place where you could buy ice cream but they had a little store there you could get jaw breakers for a penny, they call 'em jaw breakers, candy. And I would go up and a little white boys my age would come and kick me on the leg and say, nigger, nigger, nigger, and spit on me and I couldn't do anything and their parents would laugh and you know, look at 'em and laugh and like you say, come on, you know, or what, but I couldn't say anything because I knew if I did they'd whip me, you know? So, that's the way it was.$$So you were born in Lithonia, Georgia, this was all happening in Lithonia?$$In Lithonia, yes.$$In DeKalb County [Georgia]?$$DeKalb County.$$Do you have other memories of, of that kind of treatment as a young boy?$$Oh yes. Oh yes, I was told about Charlie Mitchell [Charles Mitchell], that was the last lynching they had in Lithonia, his name was Charlie Mitchell, and what happened was a group of white men attempted to whip him, and he bit one who owned the bank, I.M. Starr was his name, bit his ear off. And he got away, and he made it up to what is now Coffee Road, and out in the middle of the field they would have the house called the cotton house, and he got in the cotton house, they couldn't find him, they got the dogs trying to track him or what. And the next morning, you saw this black fellow coming down, what is now, Lithonia, Redan Road, and he whistled and called him and said, "Go to Decatur [Georgia] and get the sheriff to come and get me," he said, "because they're gonna kill me if they find me." And he came down to Lithonia and sat on that rock wall where the train comes by at eight o'clock in the morning, come back at five in the evening and he told the police down there and they went up and got him and naturally killed him and tied him by his feet and drug him up and down Main Street. Well the street was made out of what we call cobblestones, about twelve inches long and about four inches wide, you know, put down on the street and they drug him back and forth, you know, and people come out and spit on him and things like that. And, but I remember the Klan [Ku Klux Klan, KKK] coming down where we lived in Brewster's Alley [ph.] and everybody would pull their shades down, they had the green shades, pull their shades down and, and they would kick the door in or what, you could hear 'em they'd shoot in the air, you know? Say, "What are you doing up this late," you know? Because you had to go to work and the rock quarries are in the fields, you know, at daybreak. And as a child, I would crawl under the bed, you know?$$So this happened actually at your home? They were kicking the door?$$Oh? Out, out in Brewster's Alley they did, but I don't recall them kicking our door in. We lived in a little two room house and, but I would peep out of the window at them. And, I did see them whip a man called Boise Shepard [ph.], and because what they were doing, the cotton house in the middle of the cotton field, as the people picked the cotton, the end of the rolls, they would dump it out in the big baskets and then the--he would pick up on the wagons and put it in the cotton house until he'd get enough to, bails to take to the cotton gin, and he didn't go to work that day, so somebody who picked cotton had to take that job, driving the wagon, you know, the mule and wagon that do it. And he said he was sick. Well I knew the man was sick 'cause my mother [Celvia Woodall Phillips] had given him some castor oil and, they whipped him, made him lay over the log, they whipped him and I watched that and I just had fear, you know, of the Ku Klux Klan.$$Did they come in wearing their garb? The, the white (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yes--$$--robes?$$--some would have them, some wouldn't and I, I knew some of 'em, well everybody was a Klan. All the white people were Klan, you know? The store was, owner was Klan, they had one policeman, he was a Klan, and any white person could arrest any black person, you know?$I jumped in the water, and they pulled me on board, helped me get onboard the raft, because see, the type rafts they had then were K-pots [ph.], you know? So, I got on and I was sitting around the edges there and we finally made it ashore, we were only about 250, maybe three hundred yards from shore, and we could see like a fence on top of the cliff, so we knew, you know, for that fence to be there, we figured it was for to keep the sheep and goat or something, you know, from falling over the edge there. And the raft capsized just before we landed, or what, and then, well Bergeron [Edward Bergeron] had gone in the first raft, he and Egner [Harry Egner], and climbed the cliff, he had a knife, because they, they, they always told us to carry condoms, and the purpose for the condoms was to put a box of matches in there a knife, and what, and then tie a knot in it, it becomes waterproof. And, so if the ship is sunk you would have a match, you know or something you could start a fire, and that's what they had, and Bergeron used his knife to put etches in the ice and climb the cliff. And he climbed the cliff and made it over the ice cap, he saw light about three miles and notified the people of St. Lawrence [Canada], the ship [USS Truxtun (DD-229)] and they all, they closed the mine [Iron Springs Mine], shut down their little village, the store, they had one store or what, and they came, they came down on ropes, down the cliffs. Well when I got ashore, I thought I was in Iceland, well, it was a strange, strange feeling, I, it's hard to explain because it seemed like I was conscious but it seems like time, say if I wanted to walk from here to the window, it would take hours, it seemed like. And I, seemed like my heart, instead of beating boop, boop, boop, it would beat, boomp--boomp--and I was wondering if that next beat was coming, and I knew all I had to do was close my eyes and die, because the, the Cato brothers [James Cato and Leo Cato] had sat on the torpedo tube and put their arms around each other, said, goodbye, this is it and just died, you know? So I knew all I had to do was close my eyes and die. So I went back in the cove there, a little small cove, not much bigger than this room, went back in the corner and decided to die, I decided to die, you know, so I got down on the ground there and somebody, well the Newfoundlander had scaled the cliff and come down and one picked me up, when he picked me up, I looked up, I knew it wasn't a sailor and I knew it wasn't an American, he said, "Don't lie there, you'll surely die," he said, "get up." And he told another Newfoundlander, said, "Walk him around," and I looked at his white face and what, you know, I said, here's a white man that wants to help me, you know? I'm thinking, I said nothing, you know, I could barely move and it just, they began to walk me around, and Egner had started a fire, some of the crates had washed ashore and what, and I began to walk around and I, they said, "Well, the tide is coming in," and, said, "do whatever you want, try to make it up the cliff." So Bergeron had gone up the cliff, so Egner and I went around and went up, it's like a rejuvenation or what, when that fellow picked me up, you know, and everything, began to walk me around to help me, I'd never heard a kind word from a white man in my life, you know?