Joshua Austin Reid- From Dispensary Director to New Dangers

The former Gorgas Hospital atop Ancon Hill in Panama. Image thanks to

Image thanks to

Although the widow Reid did not elaborate much on the issue of my grandfather’s employment, Joshua Reid seemed always to occupy a position of leadership in the community. As Director of the Silver Roll Employees’ Dispensary he was also responsible for overseeing Public Health in those parts of the segregated Panama Canal Zone and as director one of his important duties was the identification and control of vectors against all sicknesses.

With such a responsibility and to be available at all times for his patients was a great load to carry for the wages the white medical authorities kept him on throughout the time he was Director. It was also his responsibility to respond, with his crew of horse-drawn ambulances to all emergencies and have enough knowledge to give first aid and refer patients to the medical staff at the William C. Gorgas Hospital which was the only general hospital in the whole Canal Zone Pacific region for all black employees no matter where they were living in the region.

The medical facility was named after Col. William C. Gorgas, an army doctor who, even today, is mistakenly credited with all the health advancements occurring in the area of the Caribbean and the Isthmus at the time. Regardless of the political and military figures of the time, however, my grandfather was on the “front lines” of the eradication campaigns and was the first to be exposed to both the dangers of contagion and the added and ever-present danger of death by accident as he rushed headlong into slide areas where thousands of tons of earth came down with the roar of an angered nature to put a stop to months of work in those important “Cuts.”

In 1912, the year in which he was married to my grandmother, Fanny, he joined what was known as the Severing Gang in the hopes of meeting the financial needs of his growing family. It was also then that he moved his family from the small bachelor-type quarters into the “no-mans-land” of the Panama of those early years to find more suitable housing amongst the scores of other Westindian families and native Panamanians.

Quite naturally, having seen his young family living in substandard housing not unlike “barracks, previously infested with roaches and rats, without the proper privacy of a recognized human being,” (Gaskin 1984:10) would make any man move away from the Canal Zone in those days into the Panama they would soon call home. We must remember that the Canal Zone was like another country completely separated and fenced off from the rest of Panama. Yet, he continued to be linked to the American Canal Zone particularly now with the growth of his new family pressing upon him.

In the first place, to have quit the most enviable job of Director of the Dispensary in those days was a bold move on his part not fully knowing the danger involved in the new position which he was about to begin. Since the demand for experienced black supervisors was ever present, however, his new job turned out to be just as dangerous as the first job he held upon reaching Panama. The Severing Gang, my grandmother related, placed even more and varied responsibilities on Joshua.

In fact, his new job could find him and his gang of men doing almost anything almost anywhere in those days. Although his new work paid a few pennies more per hour he was required to be even more adaptable than before and Joshua, ever the man of resolve, did not shrink from meeting any new challenges. For his family and his people he was always prepared to make the necessary changes to make it all worthwhile and, by now, he had almost become accustomed to being surrounded by unseen enemies and risks. In fact, during those early years my grandfather, Joshua Austin Reid, often came under the scrutiny of all the secret forces (police) that were set up in the Canal Zone and he was tagged as a “troublemaker” because of his involvement with the cause of his people, the Westindian workers and their families.

His job with the Severing Gang would be just one of the many jobs a knowledgeable man like Mr. Reid would have done in those days, a job which entailed the cleaning up of one of the deadliest cities in the hemisphere. After all, a Black Jamaican Supervisor, like himself, was also thinking of his family as he worked on the many projects alongside his native Panamanian counterparts during those early construction years to watch as the Panama Canal Zone proper grew.

He and his crew and men like them finally saw some of the fruits of their labors in the newly emerging Canal Zone and also the new City of Panama, fit and ready for habitation. The area became free from the disease, pestilence and danger that once plagued the progress of making the place habitable for white American citizens who eventually came to replace the Westindian worker.

This story continues.

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