The following are two sub-chapters out of Michael L. Conniff's book, "Black Labor on a White Canal - Panama, 1904 - 1981"

Chapter - "The Construction Era, 1904 - 1914

The Gold and Silver Rolls

Within months after beginning construction, canal administrators established the system of racial distinctions which was to grow enormously complex over the years. It began in 1904 when they adopted the railroad's policy of different payrolls, gold for American citizens (somewhat higher than pay rates in the United States) and silver for noncitizens (somewhat higher than rates prevailing in the Caribbean basin). Silver rates were always lower than gold, a disparity heightened by the fact that until 1909 silver currency had only half the nominal value of gold. In addition, benefits such as spacious furnished housing, sick leave, and paid home leave were tied to the gold roll. Just as in the French era, the two rolls also connoted skilled and unskilled, and supervisors used gold roll as a reward for especially deserving blacks because of the status it conferred. The dividing line between the rolls had been intentionally ambiguous, and in 1906 over 100 skilled blacks, both West Indian and American, were on the gold roll.

In September 1905, however, canal authorities prohibited transfers from silver to gold, on the grounds that they complicated bookkeeping and violated the color line. Some supervisors objected that this set up pay inequities and eliminated a key incentive for outstanding blacks, but the rule stood. One official wrote, "I believe . . . the original intention [was] that the Gold rolls would indicate the number of white men working and the Silver rolls would indicate the number of colored employees." By the end of 1906 they went a step further, putting gold roll blacks who were not U.S. citizens on the silver roll at the same pay. Some men objected to the lower prestige and benefits, and a few exceptional black machinists and administrators remained on gold. In addition, black teachers, postmasters, and policemen stayed on the gold roll, because they required a higher status to exercise authority in the West Indian community.

By 1908 color became the leading, though not the sole, criterion used to assign men to gold or silver rolls, as revealed in an exchange of memos between two executives:

I have been endeavoring to transfer all Negroes from the Gold to the Silver roll. Under the former operations of the Panama Railroad this question was not given very much attention . . . . Some of these people resent this transfer. . . . The situation, however, is getting to be somewhat awkward, as we have divided the Gold from the Silver employees in our commissary.

It is the policy of the Commission to keep employees who are undoubtedly black or belong to mixed races on the Silver rolls.

Gold and silver distinctions applied to public facilities as well, consolidating a system of Jim Crow segregation. It became one of the most objectionable and tenacious features of Canal Zone life.

After 1908 the gold-silver distinction took another twist, when a nationality test was applied. In February Taft issued an executive order that henceforth only American citizens would be appointed to the gold roll. Taft had begun to campaign for the presidency, and his action seemed designed to win the support of the American unions. Union workers in the Zone faced increasing competition from Europeans and West Indians who came with or learned skilled occupations, and nationality restriction would prevent this. The Panamanian government protested that the order violated Taft's 1905 assurances that natives would enjoy the benefits of the canal and equal employment opportunities. It also had the effect of declaring Panamanians aliens in the Zone, even though Panama retained residual sovereignty there.

Taft modified the order to allow appointment of citizens of the United States and Panama to the gold role. The administrators did not apply the rule retroactively, but they did fire aliens first. After 1908 the gold roll increasingly became an exclusive white American club to which a few Panamanian and West Indian trusties might be admitted.

In late 1909 canal managers attempted define for themselves just what constituted the two rolls. No one had ever laid down coherent rules, and the assumed guidelines were riddled with exceptions. One valiant attempt produced this:

Gold :  I. White Americans receiving over seventy-five dollars a month.
2. White Americans holding Gold job at less than seventy-five dollars a month.
3. Panamanians holding Gold jobs at over seventy-five dollars a month.
4. Other whites not native to the tropics holding special positions for which  Americans are not available dollars a month.
Silver: All other persons not covered above.

They decided against publishing the results of their exercise, because race figured in most of the criteria.

Following the 1908 gold citizenship decision, labor unions began campaigning to remove West Indians and skilled positions. In 1909 they achieved a: President

Taft himself agreed with union leaders that no more blacks should be hired as railroad engineers. He wished to protect the older black employees from dismissal, but he nevertheless signaled the start of a decades long vendetta in which white Americans identified blacks or Europeans in skilled positions and had them demoted or fired.

Colonel George W. Goethals, who became chief engineer and chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1907, went along with instituting racial segregation under the guise of gold and silver distinction. He later registered the customary disclaimer about race: "I think the real point at issue is probably the question of citizenship more than color. We cannot very well draw a color line, but we can limit the employment of engineers to American citizens." Unions obtained a series of guild regulations that restricted to journeymen the use of metal edged and air-powered tools and operation of any major pieces of equipment. Over the objections of many department heads who valued the work and seniority of their black men, the unions succeeded in demoting railroad engineers of all sorts, yardmasters, hostlers, boat pilots, machinists, carpenters, wiremen, and other skilled workmen. It was one of the most vicious episodes in canal history, remembered and resented deeply by the West Indians for years afterward. The effect was to widen the gap between gold and silver workers and to subordinate the latter to the former.

The Americans-only rule and the subsequent purge of West Indians from skilled positions might have resulted from a desire by Taft and Republican leaders to win over a segment of organized labor from the Democrats. During and after the Taft administration, Goethals kept his political ear to the ground and was mentioned for the presidential nomination in 1916. If this was the motive, it failed. After 1913 organized labor found a better sponsor in the Democrats, under President Woodrow Wilson.

Who instituted Jim Crow segregation in the Canal Zone? At the highest level of responsibility were the Republican administrations of Roosevelt and Taft. Both men followed canal affairs closely and concurred in segregation decisions. They could not publicly admit to Jim Crow practices, however, because the Republicans regularly denounced the southern Democrats for the same thing and enjoyed the support of most American blacks. Moreover, the Constitution did not permit segregation by the federal government. But the early twentieth century saw a great rise in racism among all Americans, and Roosevelt and Taft had little power to prevent it from becoming associated with imperialist expansion. The Wilson administration likewise did nothing to disturb the gold-silver system.

Some canal executives favored using southern whites as labor foremen, on the grounds that they knew how to manage blacks. Yet the American work force was mostly northern, from top to bottom. Chief Engineers Stevens and Goethals were from Maine and New York, for example. But more to the point, many of the top executives were officers in the army (segregated until the 1950s), had worked in a variety of regions, and were familiar with racism. Therefore whether or not they were brought up as racists, they had lived in segregated society. Stevens, for example, frequently compared the low productivity of West Indian and southern blacks and saw labor problems in the Zone and the U.S. South as analogous. At any rate, their job, as Stevens and the others saw it, was to dig a canal, not reduce racism in American society.

The rank and file of American employees came mostly from the North and Midwest. Only about a third came from the South in the early days. The oft-repeated view that the Canal Zone was racist due to southern influence is simply a myth. No doubt many arrived without racist ideas or experience with blacks, but when confronted with the need to supervise British colonial subjects, they adopted bigoted behavior. Harry Franck remarks, "Any northerner can say 'nigger' as glibly as a Carolinian, and growl if one of them steps on his shadow."

In 1921, the Zone governor observed, "Our supervisors, of a class above the ordinary bias of race and nationality, are almost unanimous in the opinion that only the most routine mechanical and clerical work can be trusted to the West Indians." In other words, imperialism (the assertion of white superiority over "backward" peoples) reinforced racism (white superiority over nonwhites). The system remained rigid until the 1940s, by which time it compared unfavorably with race relations in Louisiana and Mississippi. Black West Indians and white Americans formed the poles of the silver-gold system, but three subgroups fit into it at intermediate points: U.S. blacks, Europeans, and white West Indians. The way they fit and interacted with the nodal groups reveals much about the system itself.

Black Americans signing on for canal work in the first few years-received appointments to the gold roll. When West Indians were demoted to silver in 1906, U.S. blacks remained on gold. However, officials instructed recruiters in the United States not to give U.S. blacks gold contracts. Instead canal officials devised for them a special silver category which provided sick and home leave privileges but not access to gold housing, commissaries, or clubhouses. American blacks continued to earn more than West Indians, due to skills and nationality, but most on the gold roll were reclassified as silver. In 1912 a White House aide, preparing election materials, inquired about the treatment of blacks in the canal. Goethals's perfunctory answer was that sixty-nine U.S. blacks received average annual wages of $820. He failed to mention that whites earned double that. Because black Americans did not fit well into the gold-silver system, canal authorities hired them only for a few sensitive positions overseeing West Indians. By 1928 only twenty-three U.S. blacks remained, all but a few on the silver roll.28

Europeans also posed awkward classificatory problems for canal administrators, especially when gold and silver came to mean white and black. Spaniards, Italians, and Greeks were judged semi white, but they ended up on a special rung of the silver roll because they did not deserve home leave nor wages as high as those of white Americans. They had separate quarters and mess halls. Recruitment of Europeans ended in 1908 and their numbers diminished rapidly thereafter.

A final intermediate group was made up of whites and light mulattoes from the islands who could "pass," a group I call the white West Indians. Recruiters avoided sending such people from the islands because they found that this group disliked heavy labor and was sensitive about racial treatment. However, many migrated from Jamaica on their own. They posed as British supervisors who, because of experience in handling Negroes at home, could coax more work out of them. In 1907 about 800 white West Indians worked for the canal. Classic cultural brokers, they used their color and familiarity with two cultures to become intermediaries. Americans and West Indian blacks both trusted them, but neither group could count on their loyalty. White West Indians, hired on both gold and silver rolls at first, suffered status anxiety when demoted to silver and resented their poor treatment at the hands of the Americans. They occasionally played a malevolent role in Canal Zone race and labor relations.

Social Control

Colonel Wood once compared gold and silver workers to officers and soldiers in the army, an analogy that probably revealed more domination of one group by another than he intended. The two rolls, with their racial and national distinctions, served as a powerful brake on laborers' aspirations and were a divisive element. Throwing Panamanians and West Indians together in the same class spurred the desires of each to be different, better than the other. Panamanians resented being classified with blacks, while West Indians disliked being labeled inferior laborers. The competition undermined potential labor solidarity and increased management's power. In effect, being on the silver roll induced Panamanians and West Indians to fight over the scraps that fell from the master's table.

Canal officials established more specific devices for social control in the early days. The police obviously kept order so that the construction could proceed. Three different police units existed, in fact. The hundred or s o white American policemen formed the elite. Their duties included coordinating security services, supervising black officers, gathering intelligence through plainclothesmen, maintaining liaison with other agencies, and operating the jails. About an equal number of West Indian police patrolled streets and labor camps, their job being to control their own people, potentially the most volatile element. Finally, Americans sporadically tried to supervise the Panamanian police. From all accounts, the Canal Zone police system was intimidating and effectively kept the Zone peaceful. Virtually all contemporaries remarked on the peaceful behavior of the West Indians, and white Americans left no record of fearing violence from the blacks.

The vast majority of persons arrested received fines or short jail sentences. Peak activity came in 1912, when 7,000 arrests occurred: Barbadians made up 24 percent of the total, Jamaicans 19 percent, Panamanians and Americans 9 percent each, and Martinicans 4 percent. The most frequent crimes we re disorderly conduct, loitering, petty larceny, and vagrancy. The canal deducted fines from employees' wages. Those convicted of serious crimes went to the army-administered penitentiary for longer sentences. The highest number of convicts there was 133 in 1913, a number never again matched. West Indians, Americans, and Panamanians composed the bulk of the inmates and lived in separate cellblocks. Prison population steadily declined after the end of construction.

The effectiveness of the police forces in the Zone and low levels of serious crime have several explanations. First, the British claimed to have taught their subjects respect for law and order. Second, the work regime of sixty hours a week kept the men under close watch during their waking hours and left little time or energy for getting into trouble afterward. Third, the summary justice meted out by U.S. and Panamanian courts was so harsh as to be a positive restraint. British Minister Claude Mallet wrote, "Much of my time is taken up in receiving complaints," a fact borne out in his reports. Even though the West Indian was said to "dearly love lawsuits" and to have "the habit of writing directly to his king about his many grievances," in fact he must have done all he could to avoid contact with the police and courts.

The Canal Zone police spent much of their time averting or solving labor troubles. A 1904 planning document foresaw that "the enforcement of contracts for services made with these ignorant people will be a very difficult matter, unless the power exists somewhere of arbitrarily controlling imported contract labor." The police served that function. They used spies, deportation, strikebreaking, intimidation, and diplomatic intervention. The latter consisted of bringing in representatives of the country whose nationals were involved in a dispute. A final technique was to have the Panamanian police arrest unemployed men and threaten them with jail or deportation if they did not sign up for work on the canal.

Panama's police worked closely with their canal counterparts. In 1904 the Panamanian government disbanded its army altogether to prevent its meddling in politics, and the police force remained weak, especially in view of the explosion of population during construction days. Police relied to a great extent on the good behavior of the West Indians and, failing that, on the intervention rights of the United States. This police relationship had resulted partly from a 1905 incident in which Panamanian police attacked protesting Jamaican laborers in Panama City. The episode embarrassed U.S. officials and further reduced hopes of recruiting Jamaicans.

Panama's police adopted a rather predatory attitude toward West Indians living under their jurisdiction. At best, they tolerated the foreigners as a temporary inconvenience caused by canal construction and employed normal tricks of the trade to extort money from them. At worst, they harassed and intimidated the outsiders to demonstrate their own intermediate position in the pecking order. The British minister finally prevailed upon Panama to hire West Indians to police their own neighborhoods, which apparently proved successful.

Physical and verbal abuse of blacks by whites constituted another form of social control in the Canal Zone. In 1906 the police chief listed nine cases ("a small percentage") in which white Americans were fined for accosting blacks. The U.S. government had decided not to use juries in Zone courts because of their ineffectiveness in handling racial violence in the South. Whites still managed to intimidate witnesses. An observer noted in a letter written in 1907, "Race feeling . . . is at a fever heat and is liable to develop seriously at any moment. Every man who resorts to the courts, or is a witness in any case, is immediately discharged."38 In 1908 jury trials were introduced, and in several scandalous cases whites were acquitted after murdering blacks. But the everyday verbal abuse by whites never made headlines and was only recorded by scattered observers. Most of the black old-timers, however, recalled the intimidating treatment they received as "niggers." One remembered, "Life was some sort of semi slavery."

Not all forms of social control required force. Zone officials encouraged other institutions designed to preserve harmony. Male immigrants could bring their families, and eventually they got better quarters in the Zone. Taft and Roosevelt recommended offering small salaries to priests and ministers, in order to prevent "dissipation and dissolute habits" among the workmen. However, Stevens did "not regard it as practicable . . . to use the same church for both blacks and whites . . . the color line should be drawn." Nondenominational churches for whites were built at several construction sites. Blacks at first used school buildings for worship, but soon they erected chapels with the help of the canal. By 1908 authorities had expended $100,000 to build churches or remodel other structures. They paid about a dozen priests and ministers as chaplains under the hospital budget; and they granted them housing and other privileges as well.

The Anglican-turned-Episcopalian church proved the most popular West Indian sect, with some 15,000 members, followed by the Baptist and the Catholic. Religion served to reassure the West Indians, and perhaps the very dangers of construction made them more religious. One chaplain wrote at the time: "Religion means very much to the West Indian. He prefers his Church to everything else." It certainly became a stabilizing force in the community.41

A final method of social control, at least in the long term, was the educational system for West Indian children. With the frenetic work of construction going on, children playing near work sites could cause accidents. Moreover, schooling and child rearing at home could distract the West Indians from the primary job. So from the very beginning, municipalities in the Zone operated schools for the workers' dependents. At first, five schools accommodated 140 white children and over 1,000 blacks in racially mixed schools with segregated classrooms. Most children rode the train to school. As part of an administrative centralization in 1906, the municipalities were extinguished and the schools put under a superintendent from Nebraska, David O'Connor. Chief Engineer Stevensís main goal in appointing O'Connor was to reduce discontent among U.S. workers by providing as many support facilities for families as possible. By mid-1906 four schools had entirely white student bodies, while the other twenty-three were mixed but predominantly black.

The Zone schools followed an American curriculum. In the words of Superintendent O'Connor, "The present public school system . . . is essentially American, conducted by Americans, supplied with American textbooks, and in large and increasing measure with American teachers using American methods, with American songs and literature, which should in a short time affect the pupils with American ideals and American patriotism." From the very beginning, the black schools were a nether appendage of the white system, and the color line was rigid.

In order to improve morale among American parents, O'Connor expanded the number of white schools to twenty-eight by 1908, 50 that few white children had to ride the trains. Black schools dropped to only nineteen, even though they had five times the white enrollment. Jamaicans predominated among teachers in the black schools, because of Jamaica's reputation for educational excellence. Those with three years or more of high or normal school earned sixty dollars a month on the gold roll, compared to ninety to a hundred dollars a month earned by U.S. teachers. No matter how good the Jamaicans were, though, they could hardly have taught much with an average class size of 115 students in 1909. In 1910 and 1911 the schools recruited teachers in Kingston, and by 1915 they lowered the average class size for blacks to 65. Even at that, they did not make attendance compulsory because they could only take in about half the black children of school age.

White children attended schools designed to provide education at least as good as they would receive in the United States, and teachers aimed for college preparation. Black children marked time in overcrowded rooms using cast-off supplies from the white schools. West Indian teachers emphasized rote memory, discipline, oration, and manners-a curriculum tailored for social control. Administrators assumed that black children were intellectually deficient, so they put black schools on a twelve-month schedule. This also kept the children under year-round adult supervision.

Toward the end of the construction period, officials set up vocational studies for the blacks, so they could move onto the lowest rungs of the employment ladder. Alda Harper has concluded that "the educational policy for colored schools . . . became one of preserving the status quo . . . of keeping the West Indian and his progeny in positions of common labor.

Few people at the time realized that West Indians and Panamanians, but not Americans, paid the taxes that sustained all of the Zone schools. In other words, the nonwhites paid for the whites' quality education while their own children got inferior schooling. One could never point to the early Canal Zone schools as an example of the civilizing influence of American imperialism. This was merely an instrument of social control paid for by the controlled.


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