who was born in Jamaica and worked in the
Ancon Laundry for over 20 years.
In her interview she told us her side of the story.
the youngest and oldest, respectively, of Fanny Reid’s children.
As we’ve already established, the first two decades of the 20th century began a new era in Panamanian as well as world history with the monumental construction and the subsequent opening of the Great Waterway in 1914. We’ve also established the crucial role of the West Indians in this grand drama and how their role as players was not without an equally monumental price.
The arrival of the Jamaican as well as the other West Indian women, however, would stimulate the beginnings of the Westindian family in the country called Panama. This is as a good a time as any to resume the interview with my grandmother Fanny Reid, to give us a glimpse of what it was like for a widow with seven young children to rear a family, the first generation Reids, in the Panama of the post construction era.
From my grandmother, Fanny’s, close, first hand account of what is was like to start a new family in this pioneer area we can understand that they were not only going to have to adapt to the beginnings of a racially segregated Canal Zone but they would also have to adapt to becoming citizens of the recently constituted city and country of Panama.
Q. Who were the children from this marriage? R. The children from this marriage were seven. Berenice, Cobert, Eric, Utilma, Newton, Clifford, and Gwendolyn Reid.
My grandmother then went on to recount my grandfather, Joshua’s death which you may read here. After we asked her about how she felt about his death she responded:
“We had a very hard time; it was not easy at all with seven children and myself. After his death they called me at Balboa Heights (the Canal administration building) and gave me a letter to get a job at the Ancon Laundry.”
This was in light of the horrible reality that Joshua Austin Reid’s wife would receive neither compensation nor death benefits, nor did she ever receive his final wages after his death. In fact, in all the years that I had personally heard her recount this story I remember her mentioning something that she did not mention in her interview, and that was that the clerk who attended her upon arrival at that frightful place called Balboa Heights, simply handed her a bag of onions. Yes, a bag of onions, one of the smallest of the bags of onions sold in the Gold Roll Commissaries at the time. A bag of onions and a letter recommending her for employment as one of the hundreds of black washer women who would soon have to abandon her seven small children at home to be gone all day working in the laundry plant. She went on:
“They had me walking for 2 weeks before I was employed. I began working at 12¢ an hour ironing every day. Sometimes I had to work in the nights up to 9 o’clock; this is when they had rush work, when ships came in and they had to leave (at a) certain time (and) their laundry had to be ready; this was the only time I got a little extra. Then, now and again, when they feel like, I would get a 2¢ raise, etc. This was until the big boy and the smaller ones used to sell newspaper early in the morning. Eric, he had a paper route on the Post and this helped to get his secondary schooling.”
My grandmother, then, with little time for grief or emotional preparation would become incorporated into the vast body of Silver workers as a laundry worker and thereby provide even more free services to the white American civilians and soldiers who were now arriving in ever greater numbers. The laundry services were absolutely free to the Gold Roll as part and parcel of the perks of visiting or accepting employment on the Canal Zone in Panama. The Silver Roll, of course, had no such privileges for “free.”
By the draw of the 1920’s the pristine atmosphere in the Panama Canal Zone presented for white American visitors and workers would have been exacted out of the faithfulness and honesty of most Westindian working men and women. The White American citizens would arrive, in those years when my grandparents toiled daily and faithfully, to find a beautifully maintained sanitized, and extremely orderly world, a world made especially for them in the very beginnings of the Panama Canal Zone.
The white American arrivals would enjoy a lifestyle far from the reach of the Westindian workers or even their own American counterparts in the Continental United States- an enviable lifestyle that they would enjoy even into the later half of the XX century.
It is true that the Black working class did enjoy some privileges that their counterparts in the poorest parts of most of the islands could never imagine. As workers, however, on the “privileged” Canal Zone, the Westindian worker and his family would continually meet the disdain generated by the controlling tactics of the American Corporate heads who sought to take advantage of the terrible economic conditions in the Caribbean region.
This story continues.