Bringing Culture and Justice to Panama

From a 1950 promotional flyer, Dorothy Maynor appears in Panama
From another Westerman Concerts flyer, the contralto Carol Brice.
The great Paul Robeson as Emperor Jones.

While hits like Teresa Brewer’s “Music, Music, Music,” Fats Dominoe’s “Fat Man,” and Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” were topping the popular music charts in the United States, Panama had become a new venue for classical concerts and other quality cultural events during the postwar years and into the early 1950’s.

George W. Westerman and a few of his associates, mostly descended from West Indians, went into the promotion of cultural events with a company called Westerman Concerts and it proved quite capable of attracting large audiences for their featured artists and spectacular shows not only in Panama City and Colon but also in Bocas del Toro.

There was Dorothy Maynor, a rising Black American soprano introduced to Panama by the Westerman Concerts Agency to give a concert in March 13, 1950 at the Lux Theatre. Critics agreed, according to the promotional ads, that the rare art of this soprano had reached greater perfection and greater depth than ever before. In fact, she had been discovered by Serge Koussevitsky in 1939. He was a renowned “Russian-born Jewish-born conductor, composer and double bassist known for his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949.”

After her resoundingly successful performances all over the globe, Dorothy Maynor would go on to become the founder of the Harlem School of the Arts in 1964, whose mission was to “enrich the lives of children and their families in the Harlem community and beyond, through exposure to and instruction in the arts.” You can visit this site here and hear her thrilling voice interpreting a “Negro” spiritual to perfection by clicking on the side bar link.

Another exquisitely successful artist, Carol Brice, a contralto, delighted Panamanian audiences with her thrilling voice on Monday August 3, 1950 at the Teatro Nacional. Like Dorothy Maynor, Panama was one stop on her triumphant Latin American tour.

Although he was not presented in Panama by Westerman Concerts, the legendary Paul Robeson did come and perform in Panama in support of the largely Westindian workforce in and around the Canal Zone. Paul Robeson, a famous and largely controversial Afro-American athlete, singer, and actor was probably best known for dedicating his energies and talents to the cause of working people all over the world. Despite his war efforts during WWII, entertaining troops and whatnot, he was labeled “subversive” by McCarthyites, who were wary of his earlier trip to the Soviet Union, his support of the 1947 St. Louis picketing against segregation of black actors and, in Panama, his efforts at organizing the mostly black Panamanian workers.

In June 1947, he gave four concerts in Panama for the United Public Workers, Local 713, who were trying to organize Panamanian workers. A large crowd of ten thousand people showed up to eagerly hear him sing and speak. Robeson donated proceeds from several subsequent concerts to establish a scholarship fund to educate Black teachers in the Canal Zone. This trip to Panama, in fact, would prove to be his furthest trip south in his entire career.

Paul Robeson is known for his operatic lead role as Emperor Jones and, in his own inimitable style, was quoted as saying:

“I going to sing wherever the people want me to sing… and I won’t be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else.”

In our next post, we will highlight more talented Panamanians of Westindian heritage and how they became responsible for bringing culture and quality entertainment to Panama.

This story continues.

2 responses to “Bringing Culture and Justice to Panama

  1. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    Paul Robeson is just adored in Russia. Sveta has videos posted of him and she just is crazy about him.

    It was understood that he loved the Soviet Union as much as the Soviet Union appreciated him and was treated with much kindness here. Unlike the treatment he got in America. America was very unkind to such a great man as Paul Robeson…

    He is quoted here:

    "In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being." Paul Robeson

    Good article!


  2. Kyle and Svet:
    Thank you very much again, I had heard of his trips to Russia, but very little was known of his life because he was labeled a "Communist" just like the besieged Silver Workers of Panama who were fighting for better wages and treatment. Have to visit your site for all the links and videos.
    It is just like us in Black Studies at the City University of City New York finding out about the great Alexander S. Pushkin.