The Silver Roll- Separate and Unequal Facilities

An early post card image of the
Old (Gold) Commissary at Las Cascadas (today under water)
Image thanks to:

The newly arriving privileged white Americans, recruited primarily by the Canal Recruitment offices in New York, New Orleans, and in other parts of the United States, arrived with a “segregation mind set.” Although, and contrary to common belief, the American workforce was almost entirely from the northern United States at first, such was the attitude of those new white arrivals that it appeared that they had been recruited by the most radical of racist secret societies.

For the most part these newly recruited privileged workers found very little objection with the system of segregation they came to find. They had arrived, it seemed, with marching orders to maintain the separation of the races even more than they already seemed to be on that United States Canal Zone.

This “Mayflower attitude” affected the black Americans who were then also separated from their white counterparts, and would early on live with the West Indians in the separated townships reserved for black employees. We must note that in 1906 when the Gold-to-Silver demotions began and the West Indians were expelled from the Gold Roll, the black Americans remained there for a short time.

However, as the segregationist policies of the Canal administration became more defined and fewer U.S. blacks were recruited, they began offering them a “special” Silver category in which they could claim sick and home leave but could not access Gold housing, commissaries and clubhouses. This virtually eliminated the American blacks from the Gold roll. By 1928 it was documented that only 23 U.S. Blacks were employed on the Canal Zone and “all but a few were on the Silver roll.”*

During those earlier years when construction was at its crucial stages the West Indians, who were key employees, had to, of necessity, be readily available for work thereby they had to live nearby. It is during these early years that we also see the birth of the black Canal Zone Townships with their Silver “aspects and attitude.” Quite understandably these townships would begin springing up around the Silver Commissaries, which, for them, was virtually the only place to shop.

Shopping at the Commissaries, the Canal’s Company Stores, which were gigantic complexes of variety shopping, some of the first of their kind in the world, then became one of the main activities for the newly arriving black and white housewives. The Commissary for both the Gold and Silver Roll was an “experience,” to say the least, as they were stocked with everything that a working person could imagine and desire.

The Commissaries, much as emporiums, sold food both fresh and preserved, dry goods, household hardware, gifts, over-the-counter-medications, toys, some ready made clothing (especially work clothes),under wear, shoes, postcards and many other items. They were known for the high quality of their goods as well as the availability year round of their merchandise.

This aspect, in a backward Central American nation such as Panama where stores and, above all, food stores were none existent, was extremely appealing to the newly arriving workers. Barred from shopping at the Gold roll commissaries, later on Silver roll commissaries were built and, although not as well stocked as their gold counterparts, they nevertheless attempted to provide the Silver people with the best of what they had to offer.

New to such modern trappings, both white and black customers could arrive at clean, well lighted surroundings with smooth paved areas around the shopping complexes. Black cashiers were ever ready, respectful and cheerful to assist in check out and there were always departmental clerks in attendance to provide speedy and high quality service. Security in especially the Silver commissaries was not overlooked although it was focused on preserving the idea of white domination. Store detectives and police were an ever present show of white control.
*”Black Labor on a White Canal- Panama 1904-1981″ by Michael L. Conniff, The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

This story continues.

4 responses to “The Silver Roll- Separate and Unequal Facilities

  1. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Even with the segregation issues, They all had it better than where most of them came from. The stores you talked about sounded neat. Sounds like they could make a life out of the area. Now I see why they came there!

    So the West Indians and Blacks were classified together?

    What allowed a few blacks or West Indians to remain on Gold Roll? Was it their skill at certain jobs or white people that gave exceptions?


  2. Fascinating reading. I can see that I will need to back up and read earlier posts to fully understand this one. However, I wanted to comment on the racism of northerners who were recruited from the United States. I was born and raised in the southern U.S. and, as such, grew up surrounded by racist attitudes with the impression that somehow the South had a lock on such attitudes. As an adult, circumstances took me north where I was very surprised to find the same racist attitudes; they were simply less open than in the south.

  3. To Kyle and Svet,

    Please keep reading the upcoming posts. You know, I have had even many West Indians say the same thing about the nostalgia they felt during the “good ‘ol Zone days” but, as you will see in the next few posts, those days were not so good for many people. I have personal experience of how devastating the “segregation” issues and the demotions and all the multiple incidences of harassment could be for a family. These things had to be experienced personally to be understood. Thank you always for your great comments.

  4. To Karen,

    Thank you for that insightful comment. I am most honoured to have another history blog author visit my site! And yes, it is a funny thing about attitudes- how they can be so widespread. I think that is why I have come to enjoy history so much. Investigating it has also helped me decipher these “attitude” issues- sometimes has helped me preserve my sanity.
    Thanks again, Karen, and I look forward to hearing your opinions again.