Jim Crow was hemispherical. So was black activism that sought to dismantle it.
Many people in the United States know that the Jim Crow system of racial segregation reigned in the South between the end of Reconstruction and the successes of the black freedom struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. Some might even be at the aware of the battles fought against segregationist practices in the North and Midwest during this same period. What is less understood is how the United States exported its system of segregation beyond its own borders.
By overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914, for example, the United States introduced Jim Crow segregation – which would persist for more than 50 years. A controversial 1903 treaty granted the United States near-sovereign rights, in perpetuity, to what was called the Panama Canal Zone, a 10-mile-wide area surrounding the canal. This meant that the area was operated as an unofficial colony of the United States.
As in the United States itself, racial segregation depended on a strict hierarchy of race and citizenship. A “silver” and “gold” pay scale separated zone workers, with white U.S. citizens (gold employees) earning four times as much as the majority black non-U.S. citizen workforce (silver employees). U.S. officials justified these unequal wages on the grounds that the lower wages were consistent with those offered in the Caribbean.
More than 150,000 British and French Caribbean men and women traveled to Panama during the construction of the canal. Their work and their very instances have made possible the canal, its operation and the functioning of the Canal Zone. Yet, alongside their Panamanian-born peers and other non-US citizens, they were treated as foreigners and durable sources of labor in the zone.
Soon Jim Crow, as a system of governance, shaped the schools, places of amusement, and courts of the Canal Zone. The area offered paradise to white American citizens, including soldiers stationed in Panama and their families and American civilians attracted by the higher pay and guaranteed housing available to them there. But the system relegated black workers and their children – the majority of Canal Zone residents in the 1940s – to underfunded schools, overcrowded housing and cramped entertainment venues.
Much like in the United States, black residents living Jim Crow realities have organized to better their lives and those of their families. Teachers, community activists and union leaders called for change and, just as importantly, helped envision a radically different world. Teachers at segregated Canal Zone schools designated for “colored” students, like their counterparts in the United States, have instilled messages of pride in their students. For example, Leonor Jump, a teacher, wrote in 1930 in the Panama Tribune about inspiring students by “selecting the accomplishments of our own people who fought greater battles with fewer instruments.”
At a time when schools did not offer high school education to black residents, educators also advocated high school classes for students of color. They created a “Negro History Week” in the mid-1940s, drawing inspiration from African-American scholar Carter G. Woodson’s introduction of the concept to the United States two decades earlier. They believed they had a responsibility to offer guidance and support to a young generation that could change the world.
They were right. Community activists and key union leaders emerged from these schools who challenged Jim Crow.
George Westerman, born in Colón, Panama, had his primary education in the Zone. A journalist and public intellectual, he used outlets like the New York-based Common Ground magazine to publish articles educating the American public about the inequalities faced by black workers in the Canal Zone. His writings put the issue on the radar of African-American U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (DN.Y.), then chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education and Labor. Powell asked Westerman to write a report detailing the Zone’s discriminatory policies. Powell used the report to force a debate on the subject in Congress, making him one of the few lawmakers to call for a review of US labor practices in the zone. No change in American policy followed, but the report served as evidence that a coalition of black activists in Panama and the United States had aligned in their common interest to end the indignities of Jim Crow in the canal area.
The end of official racial segregation in Canal Zone schools came shortly after 1954. Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Although the area is not within the jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court, the Canal Zone government has chosen to use the Chestnut justify the reorganization of local schools into “Latin American” and “American” schools. Race would no longer be used to separate students, but citizenship would still determine who had access to area schools. One exception was the Panama Canal College, which eventually allowed tuition-based admission to Panamanian citizens. Ending explicit racial segregation in K-12 schooling was therefore anti-climate – but the legacy of anti-Jim Crow activism informed black internationalism for years to come.
Among those who continued this tradition were educators and graduates of area schools. Panama City-born Roy Bryce-Laporte was both a student and a teacher in Canal Zone schools before emigrating to the United States. A scholar and public intellectual, his doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles focused on the experiences of black immigrants in the United States. He argued in 1973 that “black immigrants are subject to white racial discrimination, conscious of their subjugation, and inclined to sympathize with and participate in the national struggle for black liberation and community development.” He acknowledged that, regardless of where they were born, black immigrants came to the United States having previously experienced racial discrimination, including U.S.-sponsored Jim Crow, in U.S.-controlled territories.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the activism of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians in the United States who, allied with activists in Panama, pushed for an end to American control of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone. These black immigrants undertook the hard work of educating a broad American public about the rights due to black people who had lived and worked for decades in the Canal Zone.
In 1977, Panama and the United States signed a treaty that ultimately returned the canal and area to Panamanian hands, a process that began in 1979 and culminated in 1999. Schooling of non-US citizens continued during this period, although in decreasing numbers and under the auspices of “Latin American” schools. As was the case for previous generations, many educators and students nonetheless continued to embrace a black internationalist tradition.
Bryce-Laporte brought his hemispheric understanding of black life to American institutions where he worked, including as founding chair of Yale University’s African American Studies program, founding director of the Smithsonian’s Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies and Director of the Africana and Latin American Studies Program at Colgate University.
Like other Afro-Caribbean Panamanian descendants of the Canal Builders, his Jim Crow-defying work at home helped forge an undeniable bond between the black communities of Panama and the United States. Members of these communities have worked across borders to denounce Jim Crow and create meaningful and enduring black internationalist networks capable of combating white supremacy throughout the hemisphere. This lesson resonates again in 2022 as America’s national institutions seek to silence Black stories.