No “Real Schools” in The Canal Zone or Panama

An old Jamaican School in the early part
of the 20th century. Image thanks to
Peter L. Patrick


By the end of the decade of the 1920’s the racial discrimination both on the United States Panama Canal Zone and in the country of Panama would so impact the Westindians that the exiting of Westindian youth to live or study abroad with strangers and relatives would have become quite commonplace.

As we have related at length, an all too common trend in our racially hostile country would also be the arrival of West Indian teachers from places like Jamaica and Barbados to open schools in the urban centers at both ends of the Big Ditch to fill the urgent demand for schooling for black Westindian children. The capital city of Panama, the country’s largest urban center, in particular, had acquired a notorious and shameful distinction for rejecting Black Westindian children in the city’s public schools.

This trend, it seems, was foreseen by Westindian parents from the very beginning of the Canal construction days. Perusing the pages of Harry A. Franck’s, Zone Policeman 88, the rare narrative of a Gold Roll Canal Zone Policeman turns up this poignant discovery.

As he wove his way through the Canal Zone bush in the heart of Empire in search of the many and sundry folk whom he was entrusted with counting for the Canal Zone Census of 1912– this would be his initial employment before he assumed the appointment as a Canal Zone cop- he encountered many Westindian workers and their families who preferred sending their children to their own “English Schools,” rather than face the indignity of being forever uneducated or poorly educated. He relates one encounter not neglecting to capture the unique linguistic nuances of the times:


“In a lower room of a tenement an old white-haired Jamaican had fitted up a private school, to which the elite among the darker brethren sent their children, rather than patronize the common public schools Uncle Sam provides free to all Zone residents. The old man sat before some twenty wide-eyed children, one of whom stood slouch-shouldered, book in hand, in the center of the room, and at regular intervals of not more than twenty seconds he shouted high above all other noises of the neighborhood: ‘Yo calls dat Eng-leesh! How eber yo gon’ l’arn talk proper lika dat, yo tell me?’”

On the other hand, so ingrained was racial discrimination within the Spanish speaking teachers of the public school system that they openly and outwardly pronounced, “I don’t want any of those people in my classroom!” thus setting up a harsh, unyielding barrier to any kind of positive learning experience should the parents manage to enroll their children in some neighborhood school.

By the 1940’s, in fact, the history of our Panamanian Westindian people would mark some of the worst years for that ongoing campaign of racial discrimination which was kept alive with electrifying political campaigns designed to denigrate a people that had sacrificed themselves at every turn for the benefit of the country of Panama and the United States and keep them uneducated.

To those Black Silver families now reduced in numbers in the Canal Zone and who still enjoyed such privileges as housing and hospitalization, a black Zonian lifestyle would evolve which would be remembered as intensely as those of the white U.S.A. Gold Roll residents. However, for those who had been spared a lifetime of being uneducated, and who were finally admitted to some kind of public education their only crime, it would seem, was to have been born under the Panamanian Constitution with the “wrong ethnicity,” that of African Westindian ancestry.

In the meantime, still too young to fend for ourselves or to be employed Aminta and I would find ourselves confined to our one room tenement. Our parents’ bed and our baby crib which we still used as a child’s bed would take up most of the space in the room, so that our “play space,” particularly on tropical rainy days, was under our parents’ large bed and in front of the room which faced the street.

I nevertheless continued to yearn for an opportunity to attend a “real school,” like the rest of the children in the neighborhood. Little did I know then that my never ending quest would eventually lead me out of the country like the rest of Westindian youth and to the shores of the Big Apple for a chance at higher education.

This story continues.

6 responses to “No “Real Schools” in The Canal Zone or Panama

  1. my grandfather was one of the ‘teacher’s to arrive from Jamaica except he came as a cook and worked his way to school principal in La Boca and Gatun before returning to Jamaica… many of the West Indians to get a full high school education had to attend Normal High School whether they wanted to or not otherwise comprise to the 9th grade education available under the Zone system and both of mine not only graduated from Normal but became teachers in the Zone
    I read Zone Policeman 88 finding an original copy in a library in Minnesota and could not get through the over use of the N word. This book is a great insight of how whites viewed use since I don’t believe the author ever imagined black West Indians reading his book. The photos are quite compelling.

  2. Ocho-Gritos,

    We would like to know your grandfather’s name so that we may honor him as one of the pioneer Silver Men who served his people. We will be waiting for your prompt reply.


  3. My grandfather came from Jamaica as well to teach English in Panama. His name was Teacher Phillips from Rio Abajo.. Everybody from Rio Abajo went to his school to learn English.. Blessing ONE LOVE ONE BLOOD!!!

  4. Good day,

    I am hoping someone on this site might be able to fill more than a few gaps in my knowledge. My father, James Charles Webster, left the Canal Zone and joined the US Air Force and then moved around the world.

    Regrettably, for whatever reasons, he did not speak much of his prior life. What I do know, learned from my mother, was that my grandfather, Emmanuel J. C Webster moved from Jamaica to teach in the Canal Zone. So, can anyone here tell me about my father's and grandfather?

    Kind regards,

    Earl Webster

  5. Earl,

    In our archives we happened to find a 1947 photo of a James Webster with the caption, "Veteran Canal Zone Teacher." Since the teachers from Jamaica at this point were not as numerous as during the earlier period, we feel this man might be your grandfather.

    Please e-mail us through our e-mail address on the side bar and we will e-mail you the photo to see if you can ID him.

    Lydia M. Reid

  6. Louis Weems Anderson


    Thank you for your interesting posts. I was born in Panama after my father was recruited to work for PanCanalCo out of engineering school. My father – whose earlier, blue-collar life was as a toolmaker – was probably on the gold payroll for the 2 years we lived there. In spite of such efforts to keep people divided, I had the good fortune of having a nursemaid named Mavis Davis (I know – impossible-sounding name). I have traveled widely and lived in Latin America, eventually marrying a Puerto Rican. But I feel certain that my affinity for the land and the people comes from Mavis Davis, in whose debt I will always remain. I wish there were a way to find her, if she is still living.