Like Mr. Joshua Reid there were many more Jamaican bosses, some who had come before him and there would be many others who would follow after his death in 1929. They were men who labored in the complete trust and hope that their labor would be recognized as a contributory factor in the making of the modern country of Panama.
Although he was able to settle his now blossoming family of a wife and seven children into a tiny two room apartment in the area of “P” Street in the City of Panama it was still a great struggle to keep his family with a decent roof over their heads. They integrated as best they could and to the extent they were permitted into the Panamanian milieu.
Mr. Joshua Austin Reid continued to persevere, working at breakneck speed many times as developments, up until and following the opening of the Great Waterway in 1914, moved quickly. It was a rate, however, that his pay did not reflect. That the insult to his intelligence and sense of fair play would end that sad day in November when his coworkers brought him home to his family to die, no one, not even he could have predicted. Working until the very day he died without so much as seeing a raise in pay he watched as his strength ebbed from him that fateful 20th of November of 1929.
In fact, for many weeks, months and years prior to his death he had grown accustomed to laboring work weeks of from 48 to 56 hours, a fact that would make modern laborers brand him a “fool.” But the times were such that the Americans were “kings,” and taking abuse from bosses and supervisors seemed to be the lot of black Westindian men. In those days there were no rewards for honesty and loyalty, and black man was ever pitted against his fellow black man. In fact, days off or vacations were practically unheard of and it was rare to even expect to be granted permission to be absent from their jobs for family emergencies.
There was also the conviction in many of the early workers that they were part of something grand- the building of a true engineering wonder that would change the course of commerce and humanity. To find words to commemorate the public good that my grandfather performed would be a lofty tribute to the former Black “slaves” of the Americas. The dignity portrayed by this man despite the hostile atmosphere which surrounded him far surpassed anything his progeny would have to endure in the future.
The poignant truths that I gleaned from my grandmother’s memories of her beloved Joshua became regularities of occurrences which continue to follow us, his descendants, through a system rife with suppression of our basic humanity. They are factors, hurdles if you will, that we still hold back and try to conceal as though they did not exist.
I will share my grandmother’s response to the question of how my grandfather died:
“Joshua Austin Reid died on November 20, 1929…of an abscess in the brain; this is what they say; he had worked up to the very day that he died for they brought him home at 1 o’clock that day dying but, we did not realize it until when he could not speak we had to rush him off to the hospital for he was dying and an hour after he reached there he was a dead man.”
Even up until the moment of my grandfather’s death he could not imagine that he would later have to continue to suffer disdain and discrimination in every facet of life, even unto the grave where his bones would, years later, be dug up to make space for another “pauper.” But then, that is not the Joshua Reid I wish to remember. He was not a pauper but a working man, a man who loved to work and to take care of his family and his community and I’m grateful for the privilege of his noble example and the opportunity to pay him homage in these few lines.
Though the voices of my grandfathers cry out from their entombed anger, justice still holds us to the promise of our Lord Jesus the Christ, “that He shall return to judge the quick and the dead.” It is no coincidence that this humble servant and chronicler has lived this long to be able to attest to and verify that many of the things which other researchers have uncovered are true. In the course of my life as a laborer, a life I too have shared with them as Black men, I can confirm having shared some of the same experiences and blatant offenses to all sentiments of being a man living in the XXI century; living in what I mistakenly continue to think is a free and modern world.
In future posts I will relate just what became of the Widow Reid and the seven young children Joshua Austin Reid left behind in the now bustling world of trade and commerce which Panama had become after the opening of the Panama Canal.
I invite you to visit my grandfather’s memorial on find-a-grave.com here. You may also leave a virtual flower offering if you are so moved.
This story continues.