“White” or “Colored” Only signs with Gold or
Silver signs and they would be identical with
what it was like in The Panama Canal Zone.
It was a challenging time in the history of the Westindian Panamanian community when their youngsters were blatantly being denied an opportunity for an education. They would, as I’ve pointed out, receive additional and much needed support from other civic and political institutions as well.
There was the Liberal Youth Committee, El Comité de Juventud Liberal, and The Center for Progressive Liberals, both associated with the Liberal Party and its left of center factions of supporters who started civic protests by sending telegrams and by starting a massive letter writing campaign to the government venting their outrage over this travesty that was occurring in their nation.
The Panama Tribune, in one of its editorials, requested that the government
” …prevent teachers from converting institutions of learning into centers of racial prejudice and hate. We are requesting that President Enrique A. Jimenez take strong measures in this matter to stop the continual perennial outbreaks of segregation founded on cultural or racial differences against the children of Antillean parents who are born in the Republic of Panama, to keep hindering them from matriculating in the public schools.”
However, I happened to be on the receiving end of the “assimilation” battles within the neighborhood schools. Time and again we, the hardy Westindian children who braved the onslaught of harassment and mistreatment from the teachers, continued to catch it and were even threatened with expulsion from school “to free-up,” as they were wont to throw in our faces, “the much needed school bench and space for more ‘deserving’ youngsters.” Assimilation in the barrios and at home was not as trying as being in school for us but, many times, I must confess, I would be glad to be in school most of the day to stay away from the moodiness and pummelling of my young aunt whenever she was home.
During this time the figure of George W. Westerman was particularly active as an important civic leader and he was a notable leader in many “breakaway” groups in the Panamanian West Indian communities. His voice, without a doubt, won growing respect from the native Panamanians and the American “Zonians” as he sought to carve out an identity for what he termed the “Criollos” –Panamanians born of Westindian descent.
He bravely spearheaded, along with the help of Pedro Rhodes, the struggle to reverse the country’s Constitutional Amendment (1941) to deny most Westindians born in Panama their citizenship, including the flagrant denial of public education to their children.
Later on, and we will be getting to that important issue, Westerman and other Westindian leaders’ work along with the important provisions in the Remon-Eisenhower Treaty of 1955 (1953-1955) would impel the “Zonians” to finally remove the “gold” and “silver” only signs in public places on the Canal Zone.
Westerman was also instrumental in the formation of the National Civic League which was modeled upon the NAACP, which helped strike down the objectionable features of the 1941Constitution. Along with several other tireless workers Westerman also pressured for basic changes in the segregated Canal Zone school system through his direct appeal to Attorney Thurgood Marshall, head of the legal department of the NAACP and who went on to become a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also helped sponsor the Isthmian Negro Youth Congress (INYC), a Canal Zone youth club to serve as a bridge from their generation to the teenagers who were now known as Afro-Panamanians and were just finishing school. The INYC slogan was “Progress Through Education” and it sought to create a spirit of pride in Negro history and in the Westindian community.
Westerman also worked closely and supported the integrationist philosophy of Alfred Osborne in and out of the Zone and did everything in his power to disseminate it throughout the community.
This story continues.