The Polemic History of the “Silver” Cemeteries in Panama

Image shows the blatant neglect at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Colon. On our visit we also saw many old tombs destroyed, covered with garbage and almost unrecognisable.
The middle and lower images are from Corozal Cemetery in Panama City.
These two tombs were especially disturbing examples
of neglect and poor administration of the cemetery,
once a well kept “garden cemetery.”

During the month of May, the month in which Black people in the Caribbean and Central and South America celebrate their race-
Celebración de la Etnia Negra– it is only fitting that we, the Black Westindians of Panama, make a conscientious pause to honour all those ancestors who worked and died building and maintaining the Panama Canal. We will pause here to relate some of the history of the “Silver” cemeteries and their unique beginnings. After all, it is where most of our ancestors were laid to rest.

The United States government Isthmian Canal Commission’s segregated cemetery at Corozal was the only active cemetery for its “Silver Roll” Employees even before 1914 when the construction of the Panama Canal was completed. The site had been a jungle and was then established as a farm to provide work for disabled Silver labourers, who also lived on parcels of land with their families. Before February 5, 1914 when the cemetery was assigned to the superintendent of Ancon Hospital’s operational control, the cemetery remained with the Corozal Farm Supervisor and the disabled labor force which performed burials and maintenance. As the cemetery continued to expand it reached more than 63 acres.

The Panama Tribune, the only weekly newspaper read by Black people of West Indian origin in Panama at the time was published primarily for its “Silver Roll” laborer readership. Mr. Sydney Young, was founder and Editor in chief of the newspaper and it was not only read in the country of Panama but had readership all over Central America where West Indian laborers had settled. It is from archival copies of this historical weekly newspaper that we garnered the fascinating history of this unique burial ground and we owe it to the Tribune for one particular headline that brought the date of September 21, 1947 into significance for our research since it marked a very strong sentiment within the West Indian Panamanian community.

The startling byline “Jim Crow Cemetery Opposed” headed the story of how during the Canal Construction Period (1904-1914) the Black “Silver Roll” employees and their family members were normally buried at sites on the Atlantic coast in the area of Colon in what was known at the time as “Monkey Hill.”

The writer of the article described how the “Silver Roll” laborers appealed to the City Council of the Atlantic coast municipality of Colon, requesting they open lands for new burial grounds to accommodate Canal Zone “Silver Roll” employees and their families in that coastal region. The petition was soon accepted and granted by that municipality allowing for burial at a site the Westindian people would refer to as “Mount Hope Cemetery” or “Cementerio de Monte Esperanza.” This is just a sketch of the origins of the Atlantic side cemetery. In future posts we will go into further detail.

On January 19, 1979, due to historic changes in policy, the U.S. Federal Government, regarding the Panama Canal, reorganized the Panama Canal Commission focus renaming it the Panama Canal Company. Those changes, in turn, made the Canal Company’s Ground Maintenance Division the administrative agency overseeing and controlling all cemetery grounds at the Cemetery at Corozal. Shortly after 1979, as negotiations progressed between the two countries of Panama and the United States, Executive Order 12115 was signed by President James Carter securing a permanent place totaling approximately 17 acres in size for the American portion of Corozal Cemetery.

The designation of the American Cemetery was noted in Section 1-101 of the writ of Executive Order 12115 to be a specific portion of the American Battle Monument Cemetery.
In October of 1979 the new Panama Canal Treaty became effective and the Panama Canal Company transferred Corozal Cemetery to the U.S. Army for temporary administrative control and maintenance during that period of redesign and construction of the “American portion” of the cemetery grounds supervised by the American Battle Monument Commission. A ceremony, in fact, for the transfer to the U.S. Army control of the 17 acres of the most beautiful monumental resting grounds was conducted on June 5 of 1982.

After 1982 The U.S. American Battle Monuments Commission became the guardian of the American overseas commemorative cemetery at Corozal and memorials established by the U.S. Congress since 1923. The Commission has and continues to maintain the 17 acres of monuments and markers which are fenced off and segregated from the remaining 46 acres of cemetery grounds known always to the descendants of the “Silver Roll” Panama Canal Employees as the final resting place for them and their descendants.

It is, however, the segregated 46 acres portion of the former Corozal “Silver” Cemetery which concerns us here and which have been, throughout its history, known as the sacred burial grounds for the Black “Silver Roll” employees and their families.

Since before 1914, when the Silver Disabled Employees had been assigned as the chief keepers of all the cemetery grounds, until October of 1979 when it was turned over to the US Army for temporary administration the Silver employees had always been the principal labor force in the maintenance and administration of those grounds and it would remain so until 1982 when the Panama Canal Treaty was being culminated for the total reversion of all installations in 1999.

To date, more than 46 acres of burial grounds, which contain the remains of our “Silver” men and women and their family members, are experiencing the same grave deterioration and gross abandonment as in the past. Most of the headstones are badly worn by pollution, erosion, the passage of time, and by gross neglect. The images presented in our foundation home page and our slide show of portions of the grounds as they are today, evidence the weathering and atmospheric damage that the grave stones have undergone. The many administrative transfers and the periods of uncertainty that have gripped the impoverished grounds crew can only uphold our descriptions of the virtual abandonment the sites have come to reflect.

We have begun an initiative through The Silver People Heritage Foundation, to rescue these historic sites and preserve them as a “Monument for Humanity” for the entire world as well as for Panama. Please visit our site and support our mission.

This story continues.

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