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.