today is the home of the
Westindian Museum in Panama City
Throughout the late 1920’s and during the decades of the 30’s and 40’s Westindian Blacks in Panama, Colon and the Canal Zone began to organize, seeking any means of channelling their social energies that would serve as an agglutinating force. The local Canal Zone Silver Clubhouses became the centers for dances sponsored by the clubhouse staff.
In Panama City and Colon local Westindian groups, social clubs and community groups started to flourish. The Jamaican Society and the Sojourners, some of the first social/ cultural groups had large enough halls that served as ballrooms, concert halls and meeting places for all kinds of local Westindian groups.
The churches figured prominently as institutions that brought the Westindian people together such as the Christian Mission Church (Baptist) of Elder James W. Burke of Barbados. St. Paul Methodist Episcopalian Church also became one of the religious beacons for a people hungry for direction. Led by the Venerable A.F.N. Nightingale, Rector and Archdeacon of Panama, was prelate of that church for more than 40 years. The Salvation Army, a protestant religious and socially conscious organization, also became an important institution at this time. It held Sunday services and ran an after school music school which, for more than 50 years, served the Westindian and local barrio Spanish speaking groups of youths in the Marañon Barrio of Calidonia. Then there was the United Methodist of Mission Salem in Colon founded in 1932 and presided over by the Reverend Clarence Sealey.
As for the Catholic Church, by 1934 the Catholic branches of the English speaking churches aimed at the Black Westindians were founded to permit individuals to become involved in community work with the “Silver” youth through their C.Y.O, or Catholic Youth Organization Clubs. These clubs were especially for Black Catholic youths, who were very few in number at the time, resulting in a rather strange mix of Catholic Churches as this brand of the church was imported from the U.S. to serve the heretofore unknown Black Catholics among the Westindians of Panama. From this point on there existed in Panama basically three Catholic churches, the Canal Zone Catholic Church for White people, the Panamanian Catholic church for the Spanish speaking people and the Westindian Catholic Church for the English speaking Blacks.
The growing number of Black Westindian youth also created their own entertainment such as house parties with parental consent at their homes. Dancing couples could be seen on spacious balconies at these homes with music provided usually by record players with recorded music popular at the time. These dance affairs usually took place on the balconies of the two and three storied, wooden tenement buildings which were very popular in the cities at the time. If a record player was not available the rhythms coming from the local English speaking programs on the Spanish radio station would suffice to bring entertainment and cheer to the younger age groups that were not able to attend the dance halls.
Picnics and excursions organized by families and friends, especially on trains of the Panama Railroad, also became another source of wholesome diversion that would develop into a tradition as well as a peculiarity amongst the Westindians. The excitement generated within the well packed railroad cars teeming with well dressed blacks, would bring the cities at both ends of the waterway alive, as youth from both Panama City and Colon met to get acquainted at least once a year. It became quite an interesting sight as the trains left the stations, usually in the morning hours, with groups of people shouting and waving to each other, as if the rides were longer and more involved than the hour and an a half each way. These train rides to and from the terminal cities became very special events for especially the young providing an occasion for sharing gossip, news, information and a great deal of showing off of new fashions such as the gleaming gold buckles that were becoming so chic at the time.
“Going to Colon” for the Blacks of that era became a big event in those times as Colon had developed a reputation for having good clubs, entertainment centers and just plain style. The annual 4th of July celebration was particularly cherished since the end of the traditional picnic was usually followed by well attended house parties and even all night dancing at some local dance hall.
The story continues.