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Black In Newfoundland

AN-25NLThe year was 2008, and two excellent historians, one from Ontario and the other from South Africa, were questioning me about my thesis on the Caribou Hut –– the club for servicemen in St. John’s during the Second World War. The Hut was established by everyday Newfoundlanders, because the government had been so bankrupt by the Great Depression that Newfoundland had to give up its independence, and revert to being a colony of the British Empire. No money could be spared to care for the soldiers passing through, so despite having next to nothing in their own cupboards, the people of St. John’s donated whatever they could to give the fighting men (really, just boys) a home away from home.

In my thesis, I’d observed that one of the reasons the community had done this was simple: Newfoundlanders are hospitable. It’s intrinsic to who we are.

Unfortunately, things like ‘hospitality’ aren’t easily quantifiable, and that makes mention of them dangerous in an MA thesis. Though my advisor –– the redoubtable Nova Scotian Roger Sarty –– understood my point (his kind, Bluenosers, are fine people too… though don’t let any of them hear I said so), it wasn’t going unchallenged by the committee. I therefore dug in my heels, and the back-and-forth dragged on without much progress. But after several rounds of questioning, and me failing to budge, the discussion was finally shut down — and emphatically. The outside member of my committee intervened on my behalf, saying: “I accept that Newfoundlanders are hospitable. On 9/11, they took in stranded American passengers who were forced to land in Gander. I think we can accept that they’re hospitable.”

That sort of argument wouldn’t normally fly in a thesis defense, but I lucked out because the person making it was my previous boss… Canada’s former ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker. Indeed, he’d been our ambassador to the UN while those planes were being forced to land on the rock, so we all sort of deferred to him.

The defense went on, and I came through in good shape, but it was the ambassador’s intervention which convinced me I couldn’t continue any further with academia. My beloved field seemed unable to square some of the most fundamental –– but unquantifiable –– aspects of my cherished national character… whereas someone from the ‘real world’ could simply accept the evidence of his eyes, and get on with the job. I wanted that gig, so within months I’d signed on with my friend Peter Braid, and over the next two years we got to help make quite a difference.

But my career paths aren’t the point of that story: Newfoundlanders are.

In Dominoes, we examine how the black soldiers of the 25th United States Infantry are received by the citizens of 1940s St. John’s. To some readers, the reception might seem a bit too warm ––  too Roddenberry-esque, too good to be true. But, with due respect to cynics (and even realists): it isn’t.

That’s me — the Newfoundlander wearing the suspenders — and my great grandfather Arnim — the guy with the shades and the huge lapels.

At this point I could play the alternate history card –– point out that the presence of alien dragons (one of whom is partners with a black man) and genetically-engineered Champions, would lead to a more accepting society. But I don’t have to. See, the acceptance of black people on the rock is legit.

The best articulation of what Newfoundlanders thought of negroes during this period comes in the somewhat-well-known story of Lanier Phillips, a sailor in USS Truxton. During a bad storm off Newfoundland in 1942, Truxtun went hard aground, broke her back and started coming apart. Desperate to survive, her crew started going over the side –– in waves that Lady Alex wouldn’t attempt to swim through –– and some managed to get ashore. Truxtun‘s black sailors, however, were afraid to try for the beach; they’d been on a run that included stops at Iceland, where colored men weren’t permitted ashore.

That’s right: standing on the deck of a sinking destroyer, in the midst of a North Atlantic storm, men considered a watery grave preferable to getting to dry land… and potentially being lynched. If that doesn’t say something about the difficulties of being black during the Jim Crow era, I don’t know what does.

Lanier Phillips, though, decided he’d risk it. In he went, and eventually –– nearly dead –– he got to a rocky beach, where a bunch of white men from the nearest village were pulling survivors from the sea. Many of those being dragged ashore were covered in oil from Truxton‘s bunkers; everyone on that beach looked black. When Lanier’s wits returned, and he found he was being carried to the mining village of St. Lawrence, he had to assume the only reason a negro would be rescued was because he’d been mistaken for white.

Imagine his terror, then, when he was deposited in a makeshift hospital, where the local women stripped off his uniform and started trying to scrub the oil off his naked body. If negro had been naked in the presence of a white woman in the places Lanier had grown up, he would have been killed. He therefore thought he was doomed when one of the women declared: “My God, the oil must be down in his pores, it won’t come off!”

The scrubbing then intensified, to the point where Vanier had to stop them — admit: “No, ma’am… that’s the colour of my skin.”

I believe the story goes that they thought he was delirious, and kept at it for a while before giving up. This became the seed of a Newfie joke –– that we’re so backward we’ve never seen a black person. Well, in those days, many poor Newfoundland fishermen and miners hadn’t. But they’d seen more than their share of shivering, shipwrecked souls who needed saving. Satisfied that he was scrubbed clean, the women therefore wrapped up Lanier, and one of them took him home so he could get a meal (at the table with the family), and then be put to bed. Basically, he was mothered as if he was part of the family… because, in the broad way all those who toil upon the sea are a kind of family, he was.

When he woke the next day, wondering if he was living in a dream, he discovered that he was something of a curiosity around the village of St. Lawrence –– first black man in town –– but not a threat, and certainly not a sub-human being. He was one of the fortunate few who’d been saved from the sea, and just like the white survivors, he was given clothes and food and a place to stay, until the Navy could retrieve him.

Here’s Lanier himself, recalling the experience:

Lanier Phillips died in 2012, but he returned to Newfoundland many times after the war, and always credited his experiences in St. Lawrence with changing his perspective on racism. He fought hard to become the first black sonar technician in the USN, and became a civil rights advocate, in no small part because Newfoundlanders proved to him that racism was not a biological necessity, but something that develops from social context. We humans are forever creating ‘us’ versus ‘them’ scenarios to divide ourselves… but when there are few people, and life is hard, any human (and indeed, some non-humans with enough personality) can become part of the ‘us’.

On a rock as raw as Newfoundland –– which again last week was blasted by a mighty blizzard –– just about anything that breathes is in a fight to survive against the elements, and people don’t really have the ‘luxury’ of segregation. Don’t get me wrong: they can go against each other… even be brutal and cruel to each other… but when the battle against storm and sea begins, those differences must be set aside, or none might survive. And really, after mourning enough battles lost, it’s hard not to be human to each other, most of the time. This isn’t something that can be quantified, it’s just what happens.

Don’t mistake this for chest-thumping. Newfoundlanders aren’t ‘better’ than everyone else… I think we just come from a place that forces us to understand our own humanity in a grander context. Generally speaking, if you put enough humans together in one place, we sure can get ugly… but even then, when the going gets tough, our species tends to pull together. Because our civilization has grown so large, we don’t usually see that until things go very wrong. In Newfoundland –– and I suspect in other places where living isn’t too easy –– there’s enough daily struggle to force that quality to the fore.

It remains to this day. Obviously, my father had the experience of being one of seven ‘black’ kids on the island in the late 1970s, and look how that turned out. A more recent example, from the week before last: the Syrian crew of a stranded tanker were rescued by helicopter, but while they were waiting in a Newfoundland town for transport to St. John’s, they weren’t taken to an emergency staging center… they were invited into some local homes for tea. Because that’s what you do.

And that’s what the black men of the 25th United States Infantry are beginning to learn in Dominoes. Quite understandably, they came to Newfoundland expecting the same sort social treatment they got at home… and perhaps some of that prejudice traveled with the white members of their contingent. But it’s not native to the rock. Instead, they’ll find themselves judged by their actions and their abilities, not what someone says their color is supposed to mean. After all, the sea doesn’t care what color you are; it’ll feed you, or carry you, or kill you just the same. Newfoundlanders know that, and live by it.

Don’t believe me? I can name at least one UN ambassador who’s backed me up in past, but if that’s not enough (and even if it is) why not go to Newfoundland and see for yourself? Don’t let Vanier Cross and the men of the 25th monopolize all the conversation…