The First Generation of Panamanian Westindians 1914-1930

Sidney A. Young, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Panama Tribune- A Weekly Newspaper

San Miguel School in Panama
An ealy “English School” (circ. 1935)
Image courtesy of

The isolationist policies of the North Americans on the
Canal Zone forced another dispersion of some of the Jamaicans who had become aware that as Jamaicans their knowledge, skills and leadership qualities would, more than likely, not be appreciated on the “Zone.” Some Jamaicans, however, remained loyal to the Westindian community in the country remaining and setting the tone of leadership in the Black Canal Zone.

These were the times of mass exodus of Jamaicans to other regions of Panama and Central America, an exodus designed to escape what they called the “Jim Crow” Canal Zone system. Others preferred to stay on getting employed in more skilled professions that did not involve field work under the direction of Canal engineering bosses. Some remained working even if they were paid as unskilled workers laboring in skilled positions. The ones who remained joined the West Indians from other islands in the Caribbean who would also become important pillars of an overwhelmed and constantly threatened Black community.

Still, to be Westindian would become synonymous with Jamaican in the Spanish speaking country of Panama. Moreover, more Jamaicans were still arriving and joining the Black Westindian community on the Canal Zone and in the cities under the government of Panama. These individuals- and they made up a large group- would be the Westindians who most likely did not appear on the records of the Canal Zone during this “Jim Crow” era since most of them, although employed on the American Zone, lived in the urban centers of Panama and Colon under Panamanian government control.

Between the year of the inauguration of the Panama Canal (1914) and 1930 Panama would see the birth of the first generation of Panamanian Westindians. These would be persons born of Westindian parentage under the Panamanian flag that, as Panamanian citizens in the majority of cases, would experience difficulties in adaptation coming from the Spanish speaking community. This situation was made even more acute by the fact that Panama had not developed its own infrastructures to service a Panamanian population bereft of educational institutions or health services. Moreover, the Panamanian society was developing an “Aristocracy” that followed the social norms of the Gold Roll in the American Canal Zone.

By the 1920’s and 30’s the first generation Westindians had developed a lifestyle more in tune with what was occurring on the American Canal Zone than what was happening in Panama proper, and, to a large extent, with the Blacks in the United States. Several very unique and very Panamanian factors would arise to create some sense of community and cohesion within our distinct community.

Founded in 1928 by Mr. Sidney Young, the weekly newspaper, The Panama Tribune, became a sure agglutinating force in the Westindian community taking hold not only in Panama but in the rest of Central America where many Westindian communities had become rooted. This newspaper, written exclusively in the English language, filled a void and brought local and international news and ideas to where it was sorely needed. We will take a closer look at this remarkable newspaper and its dynamic founder in later posts.

In addition, although “Silver Roll” schools had been instituted on the old Canal Zone since 1905, the new crop of sons and daughters who would become an integral part of the second generation of Panamanian Westindians would force the creation of Westindian Home Schools or, The English Schools, as they were often called.

In fact, it was during these years that some very well qualified teachers opened schools for black children in the Calidonia, San Miguel, and Chorrillo Districts in Panama City, as well as in the City of Colon. On the other hand, while many Westindian children attended the English Schools in the urban centers, the Canal Zone settlements in Paraiso, La Boca, Red Tank, Gamboa, etc., and in Colon’s Silver City would see black children bussed, much in the same way as was done with the white “Gold Roll” children, to schools on the Canal Zone. Some of my neighbor’s children, in fact, who I grew up with in the area of Calidonia were bussed to the La Boca school every day. This indicated to me that Black children were being bussed from within and without of the “Zone.”

This story will continue.

2 responses to “The First Generation of Panamanian Westindians 1914-1930

  1. BarbadosInFocus / PictureInFocus

    Wonderful work…I love reading this blog. There is so much information here, a lovely history lesson you might say.

  2. Thank you for your welcomed comment and we love to make people “lovers” of history also- especially this history. When we first started this chronicle we actually didn’t think there was so much information available in addition to the authors own reminiscences, but the more we dig, the more we find. :-))