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. It’s the West Indian history that stretches from the 1850s, when Jamaicans came to build the Panama Railroad, through France’s 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.
Never miss a local story.
Their goal is to make sure the contributions of tens of thousands of laborers from Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands aren’t forgotten.
The foundation takes its name from the silver roll, a not so-subtle form of racial segregation that flourished during the canal’s 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.
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.
“It’s the descendants of the Afro-Caribbean people who keep this history alive. But it pains me to say that average Panamanians, especially younger people, don’t 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 weren’t 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 isn’t 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 society’s 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.
And it’s easy to find nostalgia items on the Internet. Auto licenses from the former Panama Canal Zone with the legend “Funnel for World Commerce” are for sale on eBay . Zonian yearbooks from Balboa High School where generations of American students studied on the Pacific side of the canal and Caribbean yearbooks from the old Cristobal High on the Atlantic side are offered for upward of $100 on the Internet.
“It was beautiful, very good schools. We all thought we had a great education,” said Ted Henter, a third-generation Zonian who now splits his time between St. Petersburg and a beach home in Panama.
“It was a cradle-to-grave society’’ where everyone had a job, remembers Pablo Prieto, who worked for the Panama Canal Co. under the Americans. “Because you had to leave the zone when you retired, it was filled with younger, able-bodied people and everyone knew everyone else.’’
Old Canal Zone ties bind tightly. “To this day, I still have friendships with the guys I went to school with,’’ said Tom Wilder, president of the society. He left the zone in 1979 after President Jimmy Carter “decided to give the Canal Zone away” and is retired from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. “I get together with these guys several times a year and we tell the same old stories over and over again about how nice it was to grow up in the Canal Zone.’’
While many former Zonians have left Panama, others have trickled back. Henter, a retired software entrepreneur, started to come back for visits in 1998. “Now I’ve decided to make Panama my main home,’’ he said. “I like it here better than the States. It’s less restrictive and, of course, there are the mountains and the beach.”
The old zone has changed a great deal.
Blocks and blocks of white buildings with red tile roofs with wide eaves — the old apartment buildings and offices of the Panama Canal Co. — fan out from the current headquarters of the Panama Canal Authority. Many of them have been converted to government offices.
Balboa High School, scene of the 1964 flag riots when a scuffle over the right to raise flags outside schools in the Canal Zone and a torn Panamanian flag escalated into two dozen deaths, is now a training center for the canal authority. At the former school’s entrance an eternal flame now burns and a columned monument is engraved with the names of the 21 Panamanians who lost their lives.
Fourth of July Avenue, once the dividing line between the zone and Panama City, is now Avenida de los Martíres (Avenue of the Martyrs) in memory of those who died during the flag riots, which were really more about sovereignty of the canal than a torn flag.
The U.S. Southern Command’s old Horoko Golf Club has become the Tucan Country Club and Resort. The elegant homes in Quarry Heights where the Southern Command’s top brass once resided are now in private hands.
One of the biggest changes is at Fort Clayton, now known as Ciudad de Saber (City of Knowledge), home today of the Metropolitan School of Panama, United Nations agencies and other nongovernmental organizations and technology companies.
“It’s changed tremendously, but I think it’s been a good change,’’ said Wilder, who now lives in Ocala. “They took the good things from the American era and ran with them and other things they’ve improved upon.’’
As for the anti-American sentiment that smoldered when the canal was transitioning from American to Panamanian hands, “I feel like that is gone now,” he said. “The Panamanians make you feel welcome.’’
Jorge Quijano, the current canal administrator, says when he was a boy there really wasn’t much cause for Panama City residents to go into the U.S.-controlled area.
For instance, the Miraflores locks, now the site of a museum and a large observation platform where visitors can watch ships from around the world go through the locks, were closed to the public, he said.
“That was always part of the tension — the country was split in two by a foreign state,’’ he said.