Toward a Better Understanding

The George W. L. Westerman Collection at the Arthur Schomburg Branch (in Harlem) of the New York Public Library.

In continuing our sojourn through the history of the English language press in Panama the editorial in The Panama Tribune of Sunday 28 July of 1946 merits a closer look. In this weekly newspaper, the only newspaper which published literary expressions by Westindians for Westindians in the history of the Panamanian community, we saw reflected in its pages the historic turn of events that were shaping the lives of the Westindian community.

In previous articles we started to present the opinions of the editor and publisher Sidney A. Young to offer our readers an example of what was occurring in those days of my early youth. The editorial by Mr. George W. Westerman, relaying some of what was written in his recently published booklet, “Toward a Better Understanding,” was a poignant example, however, of how Westindians articulated the things that were happening to them in that unique and often hostile setting called Panama.

What led Mr. Westerman to even arrive at the point of publishing the booklet was, of course, the indignation he personally felt as he saw the local Hispanic newspapers using their editorial pages to commit verbal assaults against his people. We decided to use this one out of many written responses that the venerable Mr. George Westerman wrote in answering the editors, since he wrote many others. It was those very denigrating, deprecating expressions used by the Spanish speaking mass media to attack the Westindians that impelled him to write this booklet. We’ll focus in on this period of verbal hostility later in our chronicle and the historical and political context that fed it.

The Westindians were and still are the only large group of people of one race, who, according to historical fact, were really able to withstand the rigors of the climate and all other ills that accompanied cleaning up the country of Panama while it was still under development. The major projects went on even as the Westindians suffered plagues, untimely deaths, horrendous disfigurement, and untold indignities while their names were hardly mentioned in the annals of the history of Panama and of the United States.

It is for this reason that we again mention the editorial as part of our effort to examine what at the time was the beginning of our Panamanian Westindian literature. With the above short preamble we can provide a description of Mr. Westerman’s published booklet. The editor of the Tribune said, “He has placed a call out for examples in human relationships for the realization of peace and good will among all races, creeds and colors.” He also extolled the value of the publication in English and Spanish, the translation having been done by Mr. Gil Blas Tejeira, native journalist and Deputy in the National Assembly. The editor unreservedly commended Mr. Westerman for the publication.

The events during these times simply continued what was to follow us Panamanian Westindians of the first and second generation, events that were prevalent in the country since before the advent of the two world wars. The booklet by Westerman put into words the story of the Black Westindian community under both Panamanian jurisdiction and on the American Canal Zone, a story fraught with emotional, racial and continued economic assault despite invaluable contributions by the Panamanian Westindian as a law abiding community.

Mr. Westerman, as well as Sidney Young, were not only prolific writers, although many of Westerman’s individual publications, above and beyond his articles and sports editorials at the Tribune, remained unpublished. I recall clearly the words of a clerk at the Afro-Antillean Museum’s small collection of literature here in Calidonia several years ago when I asked her for any books about or written by Panamanian Westindians. She told me frankly, “Oh, Señor, Westindians just don’t write,” and then she handed me two small volumes. My disbelief and suspicions that there was something afoot led me on a quest that would set me straight. Knowing how outspoken my ancestors were, I just had to prove that statement wrong. I also had to write my own version of the odyssey of the “Silver People” of Panama.

Many of George W. Westerman’s writings and research files, as I have previously mentioned, are housed in the New York Public Library’s Arthur Schomburg Collection and they include original documents, research notes and drafts of manuscripts on the historical and cultural dimension of the West Indian presence in Panama including the manuscript for his unpublished book “Fifty Years of West Indian Life on the Isthmus of Panama (1903-1953).

Both Westerman and Sidney Young were tireless workers and articulate chroniclers. When Sidney Young died in 1959 it was George Westerman who continued the important work of administering The Panama Tribune- clearly he had learned the tricks of the trade first hand from the master. In 1973 The Panama Tribune was affected by the severe worldwide economic crisis (amongst the many that would subsequently visit our troubled planet) and it was forced to close its doors which, by the way, were located on Avenida Peru. It closed, however, with the grand satisfaction of having carried the torch for its workers, and founders who had accomplished a job well done and who had arrived at the conviction that they had made an invaluable contribution to the enlargement and modernization of our country.

This story continues.


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