Double Eagle, Liberty Head Design
Image thanks to www.wikipedia.com
By now you may be wondering at all my references to the Silver Roll and the Silver People. Established by the Canal authorities in 1904, the Gold and Silver Roll system, the imported version of “Jim Crow,” or the racially segregated system of the United States, became the foundation for Panama Canal Zone society and economy until it was phased out in the 1960’s.
In basic terms the white people, specifically American white people, who were brought in to work on the construction of the canal and in its administration comprised the Gold Roll. The West Indian labor force, and to a lesser degree, some members of other races, the Chinese, the Hindus, native Panamanians and some Europeans, were classed together as the Silver Roll. This separation of the races would govern every aspect of life on the Canal Zone for most of the history of its existence.
For a long time before the actual digging in the canal resumed, since the days of the building of the railroad and the during French period, the system was adopted from the railroad’s policy of different payrolls and the separation of the races soon became an implanted phenomenon. By the time the second large wave of West Indians arrived in the first decade of the turn of the twentieth century, the separation of the races was a practiced and established institution.
What became known as the Gold and Silver Roll system in the Panama Canal Zone was more than just a pay system designed to maintain a more privileged class of white semi-skilled and skilled workers happy with their stay in Panama. The Gold Roll, paid in American gold dollars, reflecting a somewhat higher pay scale than in the U.S., at first was comprised of chiefly white American employees brought in from the United States mainland. Before 1908, however, the Gold Roll did include West Indians, Black Americans, Panamanian nationals and assorted Europeans, such as Spaniards. This group of non-white or non-American Gold roll had been primarily hired for their high level of skill and training. In fact, by 1906 there were over 100 skilled blacks, both West Indian and Black American, on the Gold roll.
The Gold Roll enjoyed all of the privileges and amenities that the system had to offer. They enjoyed, of course, much higher pay, better and more spacious housing facilities for families, excellent and well equipped schools for their children, better nutrition, better health care, almost free entertainment and recreational facilities and a generally better quality of life. Their (the Gold Roll) comfort and satisfaction were central factors in most decisions made by the Canal administrators.
Other benefits that became very important draws in the recruitment process were sick leave and “home” leave, a privilege that included paid return passage back to their home state for a holiday while their job was preserved for them on the zone. Although some blacks and other non-American members of the Gold roll were entitled to the “privileges” of this special group of people, they were, nevertheless, placed at a lower pay scale and denied certain benefits, particularly, sick and home leave.
By 1908, however, an important and very troubling change would come to further define the Gold and Silver Roll system in the form of the nationality “test” or distinction.*
*Some of our facts are based on the excellent book Black Labor on a White Canal- Panama, 1904-1914, by Michael L. Conniff; published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
This story will continue.