Interview With a Panama Canal Zone Silver Roll Survivor

My beloved grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth Reid.

The following is the first part of an interview with Mrs. Fanny Elizabeth McKenly de Reid, conducted in the month of May of 1977, in the corregimiento or district of Rio Abajo in the City of Panama, Republic of Panama. What started out for us in the family as a genealogical study ended up being more a part of our overall Westindian history. In this part of the interview we have excerpted parts that would help us understand the kind of people who appeared in our country at the turn of the twentieth century.

We will continue doing parts of this long interview as our story unfolds.

Q. In what country and year were you born and in what town?

Fanny Elizabeth McKenly Reid- (FEMR.)

FEMR- “I was born on May 31 of the year 1881, in the district of Wraywood Parish, Saint Thomas, Jamaica in the West Indies.”

Q. Where did you attend school and for how long? Also what is the name of the teacher you most remember?

FEMR- “Well I remember going to school in a town by the name of Yallahs Bay and I remember going there up to the fifth grade. My first teacher was a Miss Brown, but I still remember a Miss Barrat, Miss Hoffman, Miss Wilson and Teacher Palmer. “

Q. At what age did you arrive in Panama? Also, what were the circumstances that brought you here?

FEMR- “I came to Panama in the month of November of the year 1911; I was then twenty three years old when I came to Panama. The circumstances that brought me here to this country were that I was engaged to Mr. Joshua Reid, and when I got here I found him, and we was married later in January of 1912. This was the time during the construction of the Great Waterway named the Panama Canal. After we married we were living in the town named Paraiso Canal Zone, he was working and living at the Medical Dispensary when I arrived. But I lived at a friend until we were married; he had left that dispensary job because he said the pay was too meager.

After that we married. He got a job with the Severing Gang, and I remember that he had to take time off to go with me and get the married license.

I remember that we had to take a train which at the time ran down into the bottom of that there Canal. At that time that was a gigantic ditch they were digging. I went from Paraiso that day to Empire, where we got the license to be married. So, after that, we got married at the Wesleyan Church in Paraiso on February of 1912. Our wedding was just very simple, no grand affair; just ourselves and the witnesses at the church. Then we went after the ceremonies to be with my close friend at home, and he stayed with me for a day or so.”

This part of the interview has given us a sketch of the times of the arrival of families who would later make up the disappeared town inhabitants of what I got to know as the “Black Zonian” settlements. Those who had survived the hardest part of the labor would be led to believe that they had indeed landed in the privileged class of Negroes with notable perks. Indeed, the times would make them, the Westindian blacks, the envy of the natives who were still living in far off provinces tied to elitist families who owned large tracks of land on which they were forced to labor as virtual slaves.

This story continues.

11 responses to “Interview With a Panama Canal Zone Silver Roll Survivor

  1. Bernice L. McFadden

    Wonderful blog! My history goes back to Barbados – I don’t know how many family members went to Panama —

  2. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful posts. Also, I have shared your site in my social networks!

  3. Mr. Roberto Reid.
    I signed up for the Silver Chronicle a few months ago and read every issue and follow most of the related stories in the back issues. I find it to be a great source of information on life in the Canal Zone. I am currently doing research on West Indian women in Panama during the building of the Canal and am very much interested in reading the rest of the interview with your grandmother, Ms Fanny Reid. I would greatly appreciate if you could grant me access to the rest of the interview. Ironically, my mother was born in Panama in 1911 and my grandmother, her 2 brothers and a sister migrated from Jamaica to Panama to work in 1907. So, My research interest is rooted in my family history and heritage.
    I look forward to hearing from you soon.
    Ruth
    P.S I was in Panama a month ago doing research. I hope to return sometime soon. R

  4. I am interested in genealogy records of the canal zone in particular records of Linnett Mcneil who appeared on 1930 census living with A Barbadian- Jamaican family which appeared to be her aunt, uncle in law and cousins. Ms Mcneil might have changed her name through marriage,or might have moved on as the same family was living in the Virgin Islands later on.This family Smith lived in La Boca.So anyone who lived in La Boca around the 40s- 50s or might have known this individual or can provide me with any information it will be greatly appreciated I need this information to fill missing pieces in my family tree. thanks

    • Hi,

      Many of our readers are also looking for family members. You might start out by joining our Afro Heritage of Panama Facebook group. Just click on the facebook icon.

  5. Thank you for this! We are a dying breed of people trying to trace our history. There is nothing in this country that has any records. I looked up my grandfather earlier this year and the info was incorrect.

  6. I enjoy this so much. My grandparents left Jamaica during that time – I have been searching for a uncle Juan O’Meally born in Panama to Beatrice O’Meally Tate. The family resided in the town of Balboa. I understand that my grandfather Joseph Alexander Tate was probably buried there. I am seeking info on my uncle or other relatives

    • Doreen,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving us feedback. Your Uncle probably had to move when they started to dismantle the Silver Roll side of La Boca and Balboa. Many of the Silver People had to move into Panama proper- Chorrillo, Rio Abajo, Juan Díaz, etc.; really far away from the Canal Zone. If he did work at all after those periods we might be able to trace him through a genealogical searches which we can become expensive. It is not, however, impossible, as we have done some searches for other families.

  7. My uncle Juan O’Meally was the child of Beatrice Omeally Tate. Beatrice and her husband, Joseph Alexander Tate, came to Panama during the building of the canal. Juan never worked on the canal he was a baby then.

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