A Widow and a Sack of Onions

My paternal grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth McKenly Reid.

Fanny Elizabeth Reid, my grandmother,
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.
My Aunts, Gwendolyn (left) and Berenice Reid,
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.

5 responses to “A Widow and a Sack of Onions

  1. Kinky Awakenings


    I will apologize in advance for hijacking your post….

    I was reading this post to my grandmother (who lives in Panama). She said it brought back many memories of a similar fate that happened to her parents with one major exception.

    My grandmother’s parents, Thomas and Lena Anglin (my great-grands) migrated from JA and had seven children also. My grandmother is the oldest daughter. They owned a large farm in Costa Rica where Thomas Anglin was killed (my grandma witnessed it).

    The exception is that Lena’s own Caribbean friends/ family (and her lack of financial knowledge) left her with nothing but a sack of Irish potatoes to feed her children. Lena then moved her family to Panama to find work on the Zone.

    I believe this is why my grandma is so feisty to this day. My grandmother is the one who migrated with her family to NYC.


  2. Cia,
    We might be related, because of my maternal grandmother maiden name is also Anglin. We have inherited a photo of her mother, who is my great grandmother, which everyone in the family now alive have no idea of what is her name.
    I will always cherish the information in your comments and looking forward to the day when we can get to know each other.
    Always yours,

  3. Anita Cumberbatch

    Your grandmother, Fanny Elizabeth Reid is a formidable woman. This is a very interesting story.I remembered watching the “Diggers” by Roman Foster and seeing and hearing some of the tragic stories by some of the survivors and pensioners of the early Panama Canal Company.

    They received such a meager pension. I remembered hearing rumors when I was a child that many of the “old men” were being killed off at those two Canal Zone hospitals. I know it is hard to prove, but knowing the people involved, I rest my case. All I have to say is that I know God loves us.


  4. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    Hey Roberto,

    That was a great article. When i read something like this I wonder how people survived?

    I see the same American Corporate heads still taking advantage of terrible economic conditions in the world….

    I love the comments that you are getting from other people. They expand the history even more.


  5. Deborah Ann McLean Owens Lewis

    Hi Godfather,

    It’s Deborah. Sorry it has been so long since I reached out. I am reading your articles and as always, I am in awe of you you have accomplished and this priceless gift you have given to us all.

    Your loving God-daugther

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