The Sacrifice of Silver Families- A Bitter Cup

A Bitter Cup

The deleterious effects of a segregated work environment would invariably exact its toll on the emotional climate of the Silver workers’ home front. What had become a bounty to Gold Roll families would become a great sacrifice for Silver families and the dynamics of the entire picture would not be so clearly perceived until the works in the Great Ditch had come under control.

The dream of Chief Engineer John F. Stevens back in 1905 of seeing his Silver workers well taken care of -laborers who he, early on, recognized as very important to the Canal enterprise-had become a frustrated hope. Even this gifted civilian administrator who transformed the Canal Zone into a fit place for working and living in only two years would have to cave into the pressure placed on him by the powerful gatekeepers of American politics.

Stymied in many ways from realizing a more equitable work environment in the hostile climate of Panama, Stevens would eventually turn over all administration to the racist American Army who would totally comply with their political constituency putting into effect a more racially segregated system akin to that found in the southern parts of the United States. And that is how the system endured basically until the Canal was reverted. In fact, right up until 1999, America’s little gilded corner of the empire here in Panama was still called “The Plantation,” by blacks and whites alike.

The segregated Gold/Silver payroll system which was transferred from the (American) Panama Railroad days, when most of the employees were from Jamaica, now took on a severity of race and class that made the sacrifices once seen as contributions by Silver families in later years become impositions akin to wartime concentration camps.

As early as the first three years of renewed construction on the Panama Canal which were the years of the hardest labor, there were artificial distinctions placed on Silver families- some were “recognized” and others were “unrecognized.” Whether recognized or not, however, for the Silver men their needs would never again be so recognized as in the times of Mr. John Stevens.

Stevens had been the only white Chief to recognize how those Black men would be producing the bulk of the hardest and most crucial work called for in the mega construction. He had been down in the muddy, mosquito infested, and danger ridden trenches with them and had listened to their opinions and complaints and saw how they sickened and died by the hundreds of disease, malnutrition and accident. However, even as early as the first two years of renewed construction of what the French had already started, social changes would take a back seat to the job at hand.

Even in those early times Silver families had few reasons to show outward elation whether they were newly arrived or seasoned, living on or off the Canal Zone. Issues such as housing would show little change for single or married Silver Men as construction advanced, and towards the date of the perceived inauguration of the colossal project, very little in terms of better working conditions and encouragement for the Silver workers and their families would materialize to reward their efforts from a more segregated and entrenched Canal Zone administration.

By 1940, the year in which I would come to have an inkling of what was occurring to my family and/or with “the White man,” as my grandfather vehemently referred to them, I would begin forming a picture of what it was really like to be a “Child of the Silver Roll.” By the early 1950’s both my grandfathers, as with other Silver Roll employees of the Panama Canal Zone, would have been dead and have left their widows homeless and penniless.

Were it not for the meagre resources here in Panama my grandmother, Fanny E. Reid, for example, who secured a tiny pension from the Zone after working at the Ancon Laundry for over twenty years, would have been obliged to live entirely under her children’s charity. That, in fact, is what befell my grandmother, Marcella Green, who was left without widow’s benefits or pension of any kind. Although their lot could have been much worse as with the story of my dear Polly (about her in another post), theirs was a far cry from a dignified old age for women, Silver Women, who had worked just as hard to make the Panama Canal what it is today.

By the time I was an adolescent in the 1950’s I would also have had many experiences at funerals either at Corozal Silver Cemetery or at Mount Hope Cemetery in the Atlantic City of Colon. My last experiences with those pioneering Silver Men and Women would give me sharper insight into what I would want out of life. What’s more, my experiences with people like Polly, the maid, another vivid example of what would be my lot if I even dared to dream of working on the racist Panama Canal Zone, would be enough of an incentive to seek better horizons. Otherwise, I would wind up drinking from the same cup of disillusionment that had befallen my Silver people, the Westindians of Panama.

This story continues.

3 responses to “The Sacrifice of Silver Families- A Bitter Cup

  1. hi…
    nice to find you…
    GOD bless…

  2. Just a few years ago, I mentioned to a co-worker here in the USA about the segregation in the Canal Zone. I was unaware this white American had family in Chiriqui and was well acquainted with life on the Canal Zone, and to my surprise she blurted, “but you had it much better than any family in Panamá!”

    I got angry. She was right. Life in the segregated Canal Zone was as good as it gets. My fondest memories remain there. Except for Gamboa, and ocassional visits to Balboa how much better ‘Americans’ lived was not that evident to us. We made our own happiness.

    Her words still make me angry. We lived in a prison of comforts. Most of us West Indians were prisoners of our own English. We spoke very little or no Spanish. Panama was a far off place even though it was only a few miles away. We settled for the isolation.

    The anesthesia would at times wear thin and confrontations would happen. In Gamboa, at Halloween there were egg fights for fun with the whites but with the black liberation movement in the USA influencing our thinking we would unleash our distate of the segregation whenever we could.

    During my senior year, a contingent from Balboa came to Paraiso in search of people who could help fill the roles of a black characters in one of their plays. The female student in charge stated clearly her intent was to bring our worlds together, since they could find black American students in their hallways. In a moment I have come to regret, I unleashed a barrage of hate at them and specifically at her.

    The words came from places I did know were within me. I walked out on them extending a peace branch since legally the segregation was in place. But it was too late. I would be gone in a few months to the USA, and felt this should have been done ages ago. Were ‘we’ so invisible to you? Our relatives cleaned your homes. My friends carried your groceries in the heat. And you want us, because you need us?

    I still remember Balboa finally being open to ‘us’. For years, my father through ‘connections’ bought stuff at the Balboa commissary. I walked through all of the places up until then forbidden. During that time we were invited to the opening the play at the Balboa Theater. The white students above us in the balcony spat on us below.

    These days I live my life for full racial and cultural harmony with all. I believe the separation imposed in my youth and its anger has given me the energy to always try to resolve and reach. I hope the young white woman to whom I spouted my buried resentments has continued to offer olive branches. I learned from her bravery.

  3. Ocho-Gritos,

    I commend you for your valuable youthful insight into the segregated Panama Canal Zone.

    Again, I would state that during those historic times there were very few whites that had any notion at all of what the Black Canal Zone was like or what it looked like. So that we are now able to instruct them, Black and White Americans alike, of the great inhumane evils that Apartheid world wide Segregation has imposed on our people.

    Because it had been my humble experience that not only whites in the USA but many Blacks here and there also think that we as Westindians had such a great time economically and otherwise during those historic times.

    I am also regretting instances in our past in that we felt the need to just go off on some white person out of frustration. I agree with you that we ought to conserve that “Energy to always resolve and reach out,…offer olive branches” and be brave to see the Christian Love flowing despite the situation. Honestlly I feel that that would fight Segregation and hatefull inhuman behaviour more than just frustration and venting in anger.

    Work for peace!