Among the exhibits at the museum are a model of the overcrowded rooming houses occupied by black laborers in the Caledonia and El Chorillo neighborhoods, the medicinal herbs they used to try to cure themselves and mock-ups of a bedroom and kitchen typical of laborers modest homes.
Its the descendants of the Afro-Caribbean people who keep this history alive. But it pains me to say that average Panamanians, especially younger people, dont really know about it, said Miriam Gomez de DeMaria, a guide at the museum.
She said most months about 200 to 300 people visit the museum, housed in the old Misión Cristiana church founded by West Indians in 1910.
By the time the museum opened, the West Indian community had ceased to exist as a living, vibrant community, Conniff said.
In the early 1980s, after the 1979 transfer of the Canal Zone but not yet the canal itself, he interviewed some of the early black canal workers. They expressed some bitterness. They had bought into the American dream and felt they had been put out to the pasture, he said. There really werent advantages for the West Indians under the Canal Treaties of 1977. They had to move out of the zone.
Roberto Reid, a descendant of Jamaicans who worked on the canal and founder of the Silver People Heritage Foundation, insists their legacy should be remembered and the ancestral burying grounds of the Silver People preserved.
At the Cemeterio Frances outside Panama City, eight-inch stone crosses climb a hillside and there is a memorial to those who gave their lives clearing thousands of acres of forest before the French effort went bust in 1889. Americans who contributed to the construction and operation of the canal and veterans are laid to rest at the peaceful, manicured Corozal American Cemetery just north of Panama City. The American Battle Monument Commission assumed responsibility for the 16-acre American side of the cemetery in 1982, but the side where silver workers were buried remained with the Panama City municipal government.
Through the years, the graves of the Silver People deteriorated. In March, a new Panamanian law declared the silver cemetery at Corozal and two other silver cemeteries on the Atlantic side of the canal as part of the historic patrimony a move that should help with their restoration and preservation by the government.
But the Silver People Heritage Foundation isnt the only organization interested in preserving history. The Panama Canal Museum, which used to be based in Seminole, completed transferring its collection celebrating the American era at the canal to the University of Florida this summer.
The collection is unique, said Barbara Hood, director of communications for UF libraries, and the university plans to use the items in nine exhibits throughout the campus in August 2014 the 100th anniversary of the completion of the canal. Traveling exhibitions also are in the works.
Many former Zonians both those who still live in Panama and those who have left describe their experience growing up in the Canal Zone, the narrow strip of land that hugged the canal on both sides from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as special.
Since many former Zonians settled in the Tampa Bay area, the societys headquarters was located in Seminole more than two decades ago. Members get together for social events and a four-day annual reunion in Orlando that attracts upward of 3,000 people.