Social Control and the “Silver” Schools

Gold Roll school at Gatun 1912.


Silver Roll school at Empire 1912.

Images are of gold roll (top ) and “silver” schools (bottom)
between 1910 and 1912. Note the marked contrast.
The black children have no playground equipment in their yard.

Images thanks to

As the Canal activities expanded and the growth of the Silver townships became a bigger factor in the evolution of the Canal Zone, methods of social control of the ever larger West Indian population in and out of the Zone became a greater issue to Canal authorities. One manifestation of this need to control was in the educational system for the
Westindian children.

During the early years, with the frenetic task of construction taking place alongside worker camps and residential areas, children playing near work sites could cause serious problems in the form of accidents.

It was from the very beginning of the building of the Canal, then, that the municipal authorities in the Zone began operating schools for the worker’s “dependents.” Initially, “five schools accommodated 140 white children and over 1,000 black children in racially mixed schools with segregated classrooms.”** Most of the children used the train to get to school. In order to appease the ever looming discontent amongst the U.S. workers, the Chief Engineer, John Stevens, supported an “administrative decentralization” in 1906 and the municipalities were discontinued. The schools were placed under a superintendent from the U.S.. By the middle of that year four schools had all white student bodies and the remaining twenty-three were predominantly black.

Following an American curriculum throughout its history, the public school system in the Panama Canal Zone hired American teachers who employed American teaching methods, used American textbooks, and introduced American songs, literature, and history which, in the short and long run impressed the children with American culture and ideals, and, of course, American patriotism. From the very beginning, however, the “black” schools were an impoverished “appendage” of the white system, and the color line was ever present and quite rigid.

By 1908, in a measure to further “improve” workers’ morale among the white American parents, the superintendent increased the number of white schools to twenty-eight; few white children, therefore, had to ride the train to school the schools were close to home. Black schools, however, dropped to nineteen although the “Silver” schools had five times the enrollment.

Noted for educational excellence the Jamaican school teachers dominated the ranks of the “Silver” teachers. Those candidates for teaching jobs with three or more years of high school or normal training received $60.00 a month on the gold roll, compared to the U.S. rate of $90.00 to $100.00 earned by the American teachers. Class size for the “Silver” schools, however, averaged a whopping 115 students of varying ages which created a stressful and extremely challenging situation for both students and teachers.

By 1910 and 1911 the superintendent of schools recruited teachers in Kingston, Jamaica, and by 1915 the average class size still hovered at around 65. Even at those levels school attendance amongst the “Silver” population was not made compulsory since they could only accommodate half the number of school age children.

While white children were oriented for college preparation, the Black children had to make due in painfully overcrowded classrooms, using surplus school supplies from the white schools, if they could get them. Since school administrators assumed that the Black children were intellectually deficient, they put “Silver” schools on a 12 month schedule- no vacations. The Westindian schools masters added to this atmosphere of total control by emphasizing rote learning, discipline, oration, and manners. This, in effect, kept the Black children under year-round adult supervision.

Historians versed in the subject have concluded that “educational policy for colored schools…became one of preserving the status quo…of keeping the West Indian and his progeny in positions of common labor.” By the end of the construction period, school officials had begun to set up vocational studies for Blacks so that they could occupy the lowest rungs of the employment ladder.

Just as a note, few people are aware of the fact that Westindians and Panamanians, but not Americans, paid the taxes that maintained all of the Canal Zone schools. In other words, the West Indian and the native Panamanians paid for the “quality” education of the white children while their own children received inferior education. This was hardly an example of the “civilizing” influence of the Americans since the system had become an instrument of social control paid for by, of all people, the controlled.

**Much of the data for our post was taken from Michael L. Conniff’s book, “Black Labor on a White Canal- Panama, 1904-1981.

This story continues.

2 responses to “Social Control and the “Silver” Schools

  1. Kinky Awakenings


    Although this is mind blowing (65-115 students per class?! geesh). It is revealed that this was a typical strategy of dominant cultures whenever they colonized an area. It is a known fact that whenever oppressed people live in such conditions it gives rise to the increase of diabetes, cardiovascular, kidney diseases and so many other illnesses. And still we survived, worked and built nations. We are strong people indeed.

    But here is the kicker and my main concern…. now that we know how these things effects (have effected) our communities and we know the steps that must be taken towards eradication, has there been any improvements in the education, healthcare and living spaces of the minority culture in Panama? Here in the US there are very small grassroots efforts in place to re-educate our people based on pre-colonial history but it has not caught on. Even after all this proof, many of us still believe the dominant culture’s way is the best way.


  2. Thanks for the insightful comment, or, should I say an “addendum” to our post.

    Indeed, we are a strong people, but in the one thing that we are diminished is in the fact that we would, throughout our history in Panama and then in the U.S., be prone to disunity and lacking in emotional support of each other. I hope, with this web blog, to dispel this negative tendency.

    Your questions about changes are quite relevant and our answers are probably an equivocal “no.” In fact, I believe the conditions of the minorities are worse today as the Blacks (especially the Westindians) have lost the old knowledge and resources of how to treat themselves and the wisdom in eating habits and remedies that kept these “modern” afflictions away from the Panamanian West Indian people. Stress, the principle culprit, is a killer of an important segment of our people.