PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The Panama Canal Zone was a little slice of American life in Central America a parallel society with its own government, police, schools, military bases and even TV and radio stations. Many former Zonians remember it with fondness and nostalgia.
That era, which stretched from 1904 to 1999, when the canal was turned over to the Panamanians, is commemorated in a collection, now housed at the University of Florida, and by the Panama Canal Society, based in Seminole.
But not as well-known and certainly not as idyllic is another history of the Panama Canal. Its the West Indian history that stretches from the 1850s, when Jamaicans came to build the Panama Railroad, through Frances unsuccessful attempt to carve a canal out of the jungle in the 1880s to the American era.
The West Indian history is kept alive in the small Afro-Caribbean Museum, which is housed inside an old wood-frame church in a poor Panama City neighborhood, and by groups such as The Silver People Heritage Foundation.
Their goal is to make sure the contributions of tens of thousands of laborers from Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands arent forgotten.
The foundation takes its name from the silver roll, a not so-subtle form of racial segregation that flourished during the canals construction from 1904 to 1914 and persisted long after. Those on the silver roll were paid low wages in silver Panamanian coins and were generally laborers of color. Those on the gold roll, mostly white, were paid in gold.
Segregation by color, long an unwritten rule on the railroad, as well as in Panamanian society in general became established policy, wrote David McCullough in The Path Between the Seas, an award-winning history of the Panama Canal. In all public places, signs, and documents the color line was expressed in gold and silver rather than black and white .
At the Afro-Caribbean Museum, a photograph shows a picture of two workers one white, one black at the U.S. post office in the Canal Zone. Both workers did the same job, the caption says. But the silver roll employee got paid $80 per month, while the gold roll employee got $150 plus benefits.
During the construction phase of the canal the blacks had the pick-and-shovel jobs; the whites occupied the trades and had professional and supervisory roles, said Michael Conniff, a professor of history at San Jose State University.
People came from all over the world the United States, Europe, Asia, Panama, Latin America and the Caribbean to work on canal construction but recruiters targeted West Indian laborers. According to the museum, more than 31,000 Afro-Caribbean people worked on the canal during the American construction with most coming from Barbados (19,900), Martinique (5,542), Guadalupe (2,053) and Trinidad (1,427).
Europe, in contrast, sent only 11,873 laborers and Latin America, 2,163.
Black laborers suffered from malnutrition, lived in filthy barracks or huts and were vulnerable to the poisonous snakes, malaria and yellow fever that plagued the so-called Fever Coast. All told, at least 20,000 workers died a disproportionate share of them black during the French era. During U.S. construction of the canal, disease and accidents claimed 5,609 lives. Black workers accounted for 4,500 of the deaths.