Between the Zone and the City- Transitions

A commissary book of the type
used in the Panama Canal Zone Commissaries.

Many Westindians with commissary
privileges shopped in the commissaries with
similar coupon books issed in different
denominations. courtesy of 


Empire garden school for “Silver Roll” children about 1910;
probably the first school gardens in the entire Republic.

For the Westindian the times seemed propitious by now for them to begin to enjoy the first wave of euphoria of being persons of independent thought and action. Life in the Barrios afforded them a focus for that much needed social integration into Panamanian society.

The youth of the first generation had begun seeking an education either in the Westindian “Silver” schools of the American Canal Zone, or the Westindian Schools- The English Schools- of the cities of Colon and Panama. Schools founded and run by Jamaican teachers at first and later on some by Barbadian teachers held out the distinction of being the first schools in the Republic of Panama.

The Westindian youth would go on to enter the social life of the nation or become Panamanians and/or enter the first government sponsored primary and secondary schools for the first time almost at the age of older adolescents. Many youth had to make drastic adjustments along with their families as the Canal Zone’s “Big House” Plantation lifestyle had been the center of most Westindians until the real essence of a “Jim Crow” administration took hold with its policies of security and control of budget which eventually caused thousands of Blacks to have to move into the Barrio tenements.

Still, with the loss of hospitalization and housing privileges, life in the big tenements in the cities of Colon and Panama would manage to retain that Canal Zone flavor so important to every Westindian household. Such moves into the cities were not only caused by changes in employment status. Some of the forced moves were caused by Black secret informants in the Silver housing complexes. Breaking housing rules such as having too many guests for too long, or an accusation of contrabanding commissary goods could get whole families deported and banned from entering the Canal Zone.

The continual policy and regulatory changes coming from the Canal Zone administration had caused the uprooting of countless Westindian families creating a definite burden on the Republic of Panama’s meager and taxed resources. To make matters worse, the central government would receive little compensation from the Canal Zone for taking up the slack of their “Silver” work force and their growing families. In fact, many of the younger Westindian youth up to the second generation would be born not in the Canal Zone sponsored William Gorgas General Hospital “Silver” wards but in Santo Tomas Hospital “for the poor and needy people of Panama.”

For the “fortunate” group of Westindians, however, who considered themselves part of the affluent Canal Zone Society, the times seemed to mark their lives with prosperity. Unlike the affected Westindian Panamanian group living outside the “Zone,” as long as they were still employed, they had grown accustomed to the Canal Zone held privilege of the “Silver Commissary Book,” which permitted them to shop at the Commissary or Company Store.

During these historic days in the relationship between the Westindians and their Canal Zone Bosses and, in general, with the Gold Roll or the preferred White American citizens, would transform them into the all preferred “serfs.” It was all too clear that the Westindian Blacks were possessed of a special knowledge. They knew how to speak both English and Spanish well by now and they were well acquainted with the peculiarities of the country of Panama as well as the demands of the Gold Roll Canal “Zonians.”

This story continues.


One response to “Between the Zone and the City- Transitions

  1. interesting