An Increasing Security Force and Tightening Racial Isolation

Ft. Clayton in Panama

Images: Top is an aerial view of “former” Ft. Clayton,
one of the largest military installations in Panama.
Bottom image shows Kenneth b. Clark,
American Black author, psychologist,
and civil rights activist.

The centralized Silver roll personnel administration offices, as we have noted, began implementing policies that would characterize what the Panama Canal Zone would eventually become, and so it would remain until some years before negotiations would begin for the transfer of the Canal and all installations to the Government of Panama. All these events, however, would occur much later in the 20th century.

Our story of the Westindian Panamanians has reached the first two decades or the 1900´s when most kingdoms in Europe had failed where monarchies and their economics had proven to be miserable disasters while in the market economy of the times the U.S. dollar would have become king. In the Panama Canal Zone a newly introduced tight “Jim Crow” Canal Administration increased its security force with stricter measures through the U.S. Armed forces as the main security enforcement agency.

With the U.S. Armed Forces as one of the principal players in all that was Canal Security, every border and perimeter of the waterway would be mapped and fenced off as part of instituted security measures. In fact, the whole Canal Zone became a veritable armed camp, with army and air maneuvers going on constantly as they sought to secure the area. Of course, the continued constructions and reconstruction for permanent military and canal installations required a supply of readily available cheap labor.

The times did not, in reality, provide for much outsourcing of these activities that were implanting permanent infrastructures to accommodate mostly white American citizens. Only U.S. based contractors were to be blessed with these juicy U.S. government contracts, and as privileged and preferred citizens they too were given free spaces and access to the great pool of able and inexpensive Silver employees. The rest of their skilled and professional employees were either recruited in the U.S. or brought with them, strictly following community customs in the Panama Canal Zone.

The times, however, had changed somewhat for the U.S. born Blacks who were fortunate enough to be recruited for employment with the Canal Administration of any one of the various U.S. government contractors. Nevertheless, so plentiful and available was the employment for Silver employees that additional family housing had to be added.

As we’ve previously noted, by the 1920 the building of Silver Schools was crucial, and staffing was imperative. The big La Boca Silver School and the school in Silver City of the Atlantic Ocean side would require more teachers. For some of those positions on the staffs of Silver schools Black American teachers would be hired on the Gold roll along with some white teachers. However, the majority of teachers and staff in those schools were of Westindian background.

The American Blacks, hired since 1906 were, at first, included in the Gold Roll but, “because Black Americans did not fit well into the gold-silver system, canal authorities hired them only for a few sensitive positions overseeing West Indians. By 1928 only twenty-three U.S. blacks remained, all but a few on the silver roll.”* (Conniff) They, in fact had gone from gold roll to a so-called “special” silver roll status in which they were paid higher wages than the Westindians and were given privileges which included paid leave of absence, free quarters (although they were barred from gold housing), and ice delivery at home. They had commissary privileges but were barred from shopping in the gold roll commissaries. They often exchanged their commissary books for cash at the gold roll commissary. During my childhood years I met and got to know a couple of Black Americans who worked in the Canal Zone but who lived as our neighbors amongst the Silver roll Westindians in Panama City.

Probably one of the best known American Blacks who was born in the Panama Canal Zone was Kenneth B. Clark (1914-2005). His father worked as an agent for the United Fruit Company, and when he was five, his mother took him and his younger sister to the U.S. to live in Harlem in New York City. Clark would later, teamed up with his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, as psychologists, found the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and the organization Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU). They became well known for their famous 1940s experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race, which grew out of Mamie Clark’s master’s degree thesis. In fact, the Clarks testified as expert witnesses in Briggs v. Elliott, one of the cases that was later combined into the famous Brown v. Board of Education, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court officially overturned racial segregation in public education.

This story continues.

8 responses to “An Increasing Security Force and Tightening Racial Isolation

  1. Anita Cumberbatch

    Dr. Kenneth Clark’s parents were from the West Indies. His mother was Jamaican born Miriam Hanson Clark and his father,Arthur Bancroft Clark was from a West Indian island. His dad worked for the United Fruit Company.

    His parents may have had traveled to the United States before traveling to the Panama Canal Zone , therefore documents state that his mother wanted to return to the United States.

    Some documents only state she wanted to move to the United States. There is a possibility she had never been to the United States until they left Panama. But both parents were originally from the West Indies, and they were not African American.
    Kenneth Clark’s mother and dad disagreed on raising him and his sister. His mother felt there were more opportunities for them in NY. She then boarded a boat for NY with her two children- Beulah and Kenneth, and abandoned her husband, leaving him in Panama.


  2. Anita,

    A very LARGE thanks for this important piece of information as after having searched the web diligently I could neither find the national origins of Kenneth Clark’s parents,other than they appeared to be Black Americans. I also searched for his mother’s name and could not find it. Your response just goes to prove that our audience of people are a warehouse of valuable information on our own heritage if they would just see the importance in writing some things down, or at least have someone in the family record it.
    Also, it is significant that, again, it was a West Indian Black figure that clinched the Supreme Court case that sent “Jim Crow” reeling out of the U.S.!!

    Again, thank you so much!!

  3. Anita Cumberbatch

    I remember in 1986,Dr. Kenneth Clark was one of twelve naturalized U.S. citizens to receive the “Medal of Liberty ” from President Reagan. The celebration took place on July fourth, and they only mentioned that Dr Kenneth Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone. They also mentioned his country of origin as Jamaica, and I supposed he took his mom’s country of birth as his.

    I was a little upset that he practically ignored Panmama but I understand that he left Panama very early and Panama must have only been a stopover point for his parents.
    During that period, Panama was a transition place for many West Indians. All of them did not stay and reside in Panama. And let us face the fact that Panama in the early period after the construction of the Panama Canal was a very hostile place for black people with English sounding surnames.
    I really enjoy your site.

    Roberto, honestly, your site-The Silver People Chronicle is like traveling on the Panama Canal Railway train, starting from the mysterious and awesome city of Colon, right through the majestic Canal Zone area and straight to enchanting Panama City.

    Cordiales Saludos.

  4. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    It is getting better and better. 🙂

    I am so glad to see your readership getting stronger. You have a great blog that is starting to become known.



    PS: I never knew until right now that Kenneth Clark had come from Panama! His wife and his work was crucial to the public education system. My parents were teachers in the public school system in the USA and this all brings back memories of racial segregation problems that I feel linger to this day…

  5. Kyle and Svetlana,

    I, or rather we, thank you both for your support throughout this little over a year we’ve dedicate to this blog. Your comments and feedback have been very valuable to us!! And your friendship!!!

    As for Kenneth B. Clark- I was so glad to hear some more information on him from one of our supporters, Anita- it would take some real first hand knowledge to get this info. And yes, he was and still is a key figure (as well as his wife) in the long road to a just situation in American Civil Rights.

    I’m looking around for their “doll experiments” on Youtube or other video services. They were history making.

  6. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    The best video that I can find right now.

    It is sad…


  7. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Another of some of the original filming.


  8. Kyle,

    Thank you for searching the videos for us. Both films are excellent!!