of the construction
of the Panama Canal
below: President William Howard Taft
responsible for the “Nationality Restriction”
For the Silver roll, whether they were West Indian or Black American citizens, every aspect of their lives would be segregated and generally inferior in quality to that offered to the members of the favored Gold roll workers. The separate housing areas then would become small cities that were also kept apart. Thus, all these rules and policies had started becoming a reality as soon as the army of West Indian Blacks had given their all to secure and clean most of the area, making Panama livable for human habitation.
The following step-up campaign for the administration was a movement in the recruiting process aimed at convincing more whites among the American working class that they could survive, and survive quite comfortably, in Panama. That effort brought on a marked separation in the class structure of the Canal Zone as more and more whites arrived. All white Americans recruited from then on were to be classified as skilled labor, which was synonymous with being Gold paid or “Gold roll” workers.
Then the true character of what was to be a real “American” for all the other peoples and races of the world would find its full expression during this time. By 1908 race or color had become the main criteria for recruitment and administration on the “Zone.” In a memo between two canal administrators the character of the system couldn’t be more defined:
“It is the policy of the Commission to keep employees who are undoubtedly black or belong to mixed races on the Silver rolls.”*
It was also in 1908 that the gold and silver distinctions began to be rigorously enforced in public facilities thereby implanting the Jim Crow system of segregation more fully.
For the brave and stalwart black workers who had been the precursors and the backbone of all the rugged preparations of the Canal construction before this new era of demarcation of the class structure began, the drastic changes that would soon follow would make theirs a totally depressing experience. Soon they would see their expectations for any professional advancement stymied.
In 1908 President William Howard Taft directed an executive order to apply the “nationality test” or restriction to all hiring on the Canal Zone. Only American nationals would be hired for the union positions and almost exclusively white Americans. This measure was basically aimed at offsetting or preventing any form of competition for unionized (white) workers from the West Indian and European skilled workers. It also, as we will soon discover, transformed Panamanian nationals into “aliens” on the Zone, even though Panama was a sovereign nation.
The pressure was on in the Zone to stop hiring any blacks as engineers on the rail road. By 1909 the once plentiful skilled Jamaican workers and U.S. Blacks who had been acting as “engineers of any kind, yard masters, hostlers, boat pilots, machinists, carpenters, wiremen,”* division engineers and even postal clerks, were barred from such positions in the future.
Despite objections from even the white department heads who valued their very competent and skilled black workers, the massive demotions in the thousands began. Of this period it has been said, “It was one of the most vicious episodes in canal history, remembered and resented deeply by the West Indians for years afterwards.”*
*”Black Labor on a White Canal- Panama, 1904-1981” by Michael L. Conniff, University of Pittsburg Press, 1985.
This story continues.