The Early West Indian English Schools Part I

English School in San Miguel.  I believe that is Teacher Reid in the back.

English School in San Miguel circa 1935. I believe that is Teacher Reid in the back. Image thanks to czbrats.com

Alfred E. Osborne

Alfred E. Osborne.  Image thanks to Afro-Panavision.com

The founders of the first schools that I’d ever heard of were the Westindian teachers or, as they were sometimes referred to, the Teachers. By the time I came of age to begin going to school in the early 1940’s and started dealing with a childhood fraught with much sadness, these teachers had taken on a special meaning.  West Indian teachers were the initiators of not only the first West Indian English Schools but schools of any kind in a small nation like Panama which was almost devoid of institutions of learning in the first fifty years of its history as a Republic.

These Black teachers would remain unrecognised and all but forgotten were it not for persons such as myself and a few other grateful souls who, very early on, realized how crucial it was for the likes of us kids growing up in the barrios, to receive a first rate education. Just to hear someone mention those venerable teachers fills me with great pride knowing they were the true agents who really helped in the shaping of our Westindian Panamanian character.

Taking a look at Mr. Anthony McLean’s Chronology, in fact, we find that as early as 1893 the first private school run for Westindians in Panama was Christ Church Academy (La Academia de la Iglesia Cristiana) in Colon located on 3rd Street and locally known as Mr. Blake’s School for many years. It wouldn’t be until 1986 that its name would be changed to Colegio Episcopal de Cristo.

As we have already reported, the Westindian Teachers of Panama were involved on the Canal Zone in the founding of the first Silver Schools as early as 1905. The Black School at Culebra which is today under water, was founded just one year after the Americans started to renew the digging of the French Canal. The colored teachers at the Culebra Silver School were some of the first Westindian Teachers then present in the whole republic of Panama and they were all from the Island of Jamaica with very few exceptions.

However, as the plantation like lifestyle, which was basically transplanted to the country by the Americans after the end of railroad construction (1849-1855), the air of repression on the American Zone at such early times of the Republic forced the black Westindian teachers to move their operations to other areas of the country. These areas were freshly growing cities with a more receptive atmosphere for the teaching of colored children and were under Panamanian governmental jurisdictions.

The black population also began to grow quickly and they recognized the belittling effect that such racist education as was being formalized on the Canal Zone would be to the developing self-esteem of black children. By 1920, when the Silver School at La Boca Canal Zone had opened its doors, the cities of Colon and Panama had more educational opportunities for Silver Roll Children than those offered on the American Canal Zone. In 1921 St. Vincent School, the first primary school for the education and academic orientation of the children of Westindian residents in Calidonia was founded. Its first Director and devoted educator was Mr. Samuel Stewart.

In 1938 Alfred Osborne, an educator from the island of Antigua, wrote a handbook entitled, “General Objectives of the Canal Zone Colored Schools,” which served as a guide for the integration of the children of the Westindian workers from the American Canal Zone into Panamanian society. One may well say that Dr. Osborne initiated the Canal Zone reversion process to Panamanian control with his project to “panamanianize” the education of black Westindian children.

For the black Westindian children and adults who enrolled in the night schools the educational opportunities made available by the Westindian teachers who organized them would be a Godsend since most of them had not even gone to school back in their Island homes. The teachers were often only ordinary citizens, if we may be so insolent as to call them that, who felt the calling and embarked upon the grand mission of educating their people.

Many of these teachers would beam with pride upon discovering amongst their students some bright and promising soul. Quite a few of the teachers who were arriving in the country who had been teaching in their country of origin soon found work in the official schools that the Panamanian government began adding to their fledgling educational system.

The economic boom brought on by the renewed construction activities since the early years of the turn of the century made the Canal Zone and the almost deserted coastal cities begin to look as though people were finally returning to rediscover the new urban areas. The impoverished native citizens came from all parts of the countryside now to reside in areas of the cities where the Westindians had been the primary residents. Still, by the 1930’s the Panamanian government had not jump-started its education system to address the sudden and urgent need of children ready to receive primary education.

Schools for the bulging population of Hispanic families invading the cities were virtually non existent, thus giving rise to another class of elite for the few families fortunate enough to be able to receive some kind of primary school education in, usually, the Catholic schools.

This story will continue.

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