Cirilo McSween, Frank Prince
and Lloyd La Beach
Images thanks to the folks at Rainbow City H.S.
For most of us in the West Indian community residing in Panama very little is known concerning the immortal sprinter, Lloyd La Beach. The family of the extraordinary man child who survived to herald a mission for the Black youth of his time had a background similar to thousands of West Indian families as their men-folk ventured to that place called Panama with high hopes of escaping the slavery of economic privation.
The La Beach family from Jamaica was attracted, like so many others, by the enormous project being performed to construct that channel called the Panama Canal– a feat that had been the dream of all the mariners since the time of Christopher Columbus.
Lloyd La Beach was born in 1922 in Panama adding to the growing family of Samuel and Julia La Beach. He, out of all the La Beach children, however, would be the only child born on Panamanian soil. The family followed the senior Mr. Samuel La Beach to Panama attracted by the work in progress in what was then called the “Big Ditch” begun by the French Universal Company which had gone bankrupt in 1889.
To even consider heading for Panama in those times required the payment of an exit tax made compulsory by the Jamaican government ever since the failed French project which left thousands of Jamaicans and other West Indian laborers stranded in Panama forcing many to be repatriated (if they were fortunate) back to their island homes often beset by infirmities. Samuel La Beach, however, was determined to make a go of things and he paid whatever tax was necessary and gathered his family for the adventure to come.
The La Beach family then joined other West Indians on the largest work force to be assembled on the legendary construction project. After the family settled, Samuel decided to try other opportunities in the private business sector to avoid the degrading treatment suffered by most West Indians on the segregated Panama Canal Zone of the time. He, in fact, established one of the first fleet of taxi cars to serve the growing tourist trade as foreigners, mostly Americans, and their military forces were attracted to the expanding U.S. Panama Canal Zone.
After several years and although the La Beach business venture was very successful, Samuel decided to relocate his family and his business back home to his beloved Jamaica while his children were still young. As Providence would have it, however, the immortal Lloyd La Beach, the one child in the La Beach family who was born on the Isthmus of Panama, would forever have a link and an attachment to the country of Panama.
Although the atmosphere of Jamaica was much like Panama, Lloyd missed that Panama where he could see Blacks speaking in the Spanish language that he so loved to hear. Very early in his primary school years Lloyd discovered that he possessed the swiftness of angels since he could run faster than any boy in his region. After each day of play with his young companions and despite his seemingly frail frame he was prompted by his teachers at the Kingston Tutorial College, who recognized his extraordinary abilities and encouraged him to start training as a sprinter.
After finishing his secondary education, however, Lloyd felt that urgent call of the Spirit to return to Panama- a call that I can only describe as divine. Lloyd pleaded with his parents feeling an unrelenting urgency to return to his Mother Land. And so it was that, with the blessing of his parents, he was allowed to return to his place of birth- to the “place where his navel string is buried.” This would be the popular way the older West Indian folks of Panama would have of explaining the powerful attraction that would make one want to leave such a loving family environment and return to the hostile place that our Panama had become for most Panamanian West Indian youth of the time.
It would be in his country of Panama, however, that the young Lloyd La Beach would come to feel the rejuvenating spirit that made him a happy youngster. He sprinted and ran in any and every competition any of the educators in both Panama and the Black Canal Zone were organizing at the time. He ran and jumped for the joy of it all with the best of the aspiring Panamanian athletes. He eventually caught the attention of the most notable coaches of the times such as Mr. Reginald Beckford and Carlos Belizaire Bussette, who were his confidants and with whom he became close friends.
This story will continue.