Communal Life in the “Black” Zone

Image shows an early Culebra “Silver” School (1905)
courtesy of Mr. George W. Westerman

Construction of the “
Big Ditch” once again became the priority project despite the feelings and attitudes of the white Americans. The “character set” of racist America, however, surfaced in the whole country of Panama. The Westindian* community, with their Black American counterparts, lived and somehow blossomed in the places set aside for them on the Black United States Canal Zone. Still being dug out where mountains once lay dormant, not a ship, as yet, had traveled the trench.

Communal life on what became known as the Black Canal Zone developed into a quiet resignation transforming these areas into quiet bedroom communities where women and children ruled during the day. The evenings always marked the start of activities as the only baseball fields saw themselves imitating the black Americans in their midst playing a game still foreign to them. The game of Cricket soon took a back seat to the new game of Baseball, a game that still denied professional entry to the segregated Black players.

Community life in the Black Canal Zone became an area distinctly marked for its respect for silence. A “special” quiet overtook the towns as night covered the country of Panama, and the great Commissary closed it doors. The Blacks settled into their exclusively black employee townships right after their black manned (but separate) Silver Window at the Postal Office closed for the day. The once separate “Silver Chow Hall,” became the Clubhouse eatery, or back-door take-out, as was customarily done in the Deep South in the United States.

The Panama Rail Road continued to operate separating their railroad cars into first and second class with the blacks congregating, like molds, at their respective “Silver” places on the rail road their ancestors had built. Silver Clubhouses provided the U.S. type of Black life in Panama, but with that special Westindian flavor. The “Black Only” audiences at the only movie theatres available, was to them (the blacks) a view of acculturation into the good ‘ol USA, since they exclusively aired films produced in Hollywood, California.

As we will see later on in the 20th century, a little before the end of World War I, the West Indian Women would begin arriving en mass. Men began sending for some of their promised brides from the West Indies while some of the Black Americans would marry locally to Westindian wives and raise families alongside their Westindian neighbors. The 1905 Culebra Silver School would be one of the first to enroll a large group of Westindian children in the country of Panama. In the racially separated Canal Zone the need warranted opening of other schools for Silver children, so that separate Silver schools were instituted in the townships that had once been black workers camps.

The Black Canal Zone would then become a silent reality, separate and, most assuredly, not equal in quality. It was, nevertheless, still much the better for the cause of being employed in an era of extreme poverty, as the whole Caribbean had been since the 1830’s.

The Canal Zone, on the other hand, would become known for the unequaled services and perks to their white privileged American workers and visitors from the United States, privileges fit for the royalty of the times. The masses of Black maids, porters, servants and waiters, however, were, more than an important part, became a vital part of providing all those “privileges.”

* As our readers may have noticed I have taken the licence to use the words “West Indian” and “Westindian” interchangeably as the latter term became widely used in Panama as a whole for the Spanish speaking as well as the West Indian population.

This story continues.

One response to “Communal Life in the “Black” Zone

  1. Hi, I am leaving this message because I came across your articles and it would help me learn a little more about my ancestery and history. My grandmother is very sick and near death and alot of us grandchildren do not know our heritage past her parents. All my life I thought that I was Black (African American), however, I don’t think that I am. My grandmother last name is WEsterman (her father was german/italian) her mother’s first name is Marcelina but I can’t think of her last name (she was Indian). They both lived in Barbados. My grandfather’s last name is Welch and his father was named Preston Welch and his mother is Louise (donn’t know her last name). His mother was from the west indies, and I don’t know about his father. If you have sites or books, I can research to find these things, please letme know. my email is (removed).