Negative Impact on Barrio Life

The Tribute page from the Panama Tribune (1947)
Honors the Silver Workers.
Note the Letter from Gov. Mehaffey to the
Tribune’s Editor, George Westerman.

With time I would come to know my father’s brother, my uncle by the name of Newton, whom I would meet at a time when he had refused to work in the old Canal Zone. He took up residence in a one room apartment with a view from across the chain link fence and railroad tracks that marked the borders between Panama and the white “Gold Roll” Canal Zone.

At the time Aminta and I felt like prisoners held in an enemy camp since we continued being emotionally abused and called all manner of names like “snakes in the grass,” at every opportunity. Boxed in, you could call it, like the rest of the Silver Roll workers.

In those days I would observe old Uncle Newton arrive on cue to receive his “allowance” every time our grandmother would come back from collecting her meager retirement from the Canal Zone. At times he would show up with a book under his arm and sit with his mother until she gave in to his request for a “loan” which he never paid back. Old inquisitive me would soon find out that the red book Newton carried under his arm was not the Holy Bible but some automobile mechanic’s manual, a prop, that old Newt never really got very familiar with. What it did reveal in my ten or eleven year old mind was the sordid side of the depths that men could descend to and especially the pain it must have been for that young black man.

Such was the life for Silver Men and their descendants to end up having to resort to such low survival antics like pimping off whomever to survive the economic and emotional impact of the degradation meted out by the Canal Zone. For anyone who was not emotionally prepared to see himself working for the whites of the Panama Canal Zone in any capacity resorting to these tactics seemed to give them some control over their lives. Apparently, that had been the issue with my maternal grandmother as well who kept taking in laundry throughout her life to keep a modicum of independence from even her husband and his meager Canal Zone Silver Roll salary.

In my research later on in life I would uncover some of the maneuvers that my paternal grandfather had to resort to in order to keep from getting totally “deported” (a word my people often used) from the Panama Canal Zone.

The labor movement during those years between 1940 and 1950 would get the needed attention from world labor organizations that the Silver Employees of the Canal Zone really needed and it would come from the U.S. American Federation of Labor Council of International Organizations (AFLCIO). Yet, the U.S. federal government and the Canal Zone administration would move to promote even more hostile police actions and make the work environment even tighter for Silver Employees; measures that meant various forms of “strangulation” would be implemented, as history would show, such as intimidation and espionage. Every effort was made to identify the active Silver Men and they were followed around. Soon every attempt would be made to get them fired. Many who were branded as “trouble makers” would have their pay held back while they would be threatened as workers with expelling their labor leaders from the Canal Zone altogether.

By the date of 28 July 1946, The Panama Tribune was heatedly in defense of Silver Workers editorializing on Gov. Mehaffey’s “No Strike Pledge or No Pay.” Still, even with the shadowing of Silver workers, the intimidation and threats they would see no change in their pay scale although they were allowed to “change” jobs. In fact, even U.S. born Blacks would have to stay on the Silver Roll classification. More and more families would end up living in the Barrios on the Panama side and the Silver Roll would be paid no more than, comparatively speaking, what they were paid when their parents had gotten off the boat or showed up at work sites and hired as occasional workers.

By then the vast majority of Silver Roll laborers were full fledged Panamanian citizens and some men and women were laboring on the Canal Zone then for more than 10 years looking forward to a very tenuous retirement. Some men with children would stay away from home living in the bush for long periods of time as a respite. It was a way to spare families and mostly the small children from the trauma of stress from the times. One of those men was my paternal grandfather, Mr. Joshua Reid, whose story I’ve only partially told.

This story will continue.

One response to “Negative Impact on Barrio Life

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    Not much protection for the blacks. Looks like though the blacks from America had a little better situation but nothing compared to the whites.

    (Things like this make me shake my head and sigh. How cruel people are to other races and then how cruel people are to their own race.)

    Dis you gave blacks from deep inside Africa working? Was their treatment the same as WestIndians?

    You may have mentioned before but I really do not remember.

    I have not heard that term "snake in the grass" for a long time. My Grandma used that term allot. Not at me though.

    Have a good Easter!

    Kyle & Svet

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