Across the country, state legislatures and school boards have been adopting measures to censor the teaching of history, particularly the history of racism in the United States. These efforts to limit what can be taught about systemic racism is a tactic straight out of Jim Crow.
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 know about the battles fought against segregationist practices in the North and Midwest during this same time period. What is less understood is how the United States exported its system of segregation beyond its own borders.
As it oversaw 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 sovereign-like rights, in perpetuity, to what was called the Panama Canal Zone, a 10-mile-wide area surrounding the canal. This meant that the Zone was operated as an unofficial colony of the United States.
As in the United States itself, racial segregation depended on a strict race and citizenship hierarchy. A “silver” and “gold” wage 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 in line with those provided in the Caribbean.
Over 150,000 men and women from across the British and French Caribbean made their way to Panama during the canal construction. Their work and their very bodies made the canal, its operation and the functioning of the Canal Zone possible. Yet they, alongside their Panamanian-born peers and other non-U. S. citizens, were treated as outsiders and expendable sources of labor within the Zone.
Soon, Jim Crow, as a system of governance, shaped Canal Zone schools, entertainment venues and courts. The Zone provided a paradise for White U.S. citizens, including both soldiers stationed in Panama and their families and U.S. civilians attracted to the higher pay and guaranteed housing available to them there. But the system relegated Black workers and their children — the majority of the Canal Zone’s residents into the 1940s — to underfunded schools, crowded housing and cramped entertainment venues.
Just as in the United States, Black residents living the realities of Jim Crow organized to make better lives for themselves and their families. Teachers, community activists and labor union leaders called for change and, just as important, helped envision a radically different world. Teachers in the segregated Canal Zone schools designated for “colored” students, like their counterparts in the United States, inculcated messages of pride to their students. For example, Leonor Jump, a teacher, wrote in 1930 in the Panama Tribune about inspiring students by “selecting achievements of our own people who fought greater battles with fewer instruments.”
At a time when schools did not provide a secondary education for Black residents, educators also advocated for 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 in the United States two decades earlier. They believed they had a responsibility to offer guidance and support to a younger generation who could change the world.
They were right. Key community activists and labor leaders emerged from these schools who challenged Jim Crow.
George Westerman, born in Colón, Panama, obtained his elementary school education in the Zone. A journalist and public intellectual, he used outlets like the New York-based Common Ground magazine to publish pieces educating U.S. audiences about the inequities faced by Black workers in the Canal Zone. His writing put the issue on the radar of African American U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), then chair 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 topic in Congress, making him one of the few elected officials calling for a review of U.S. labor practices in the Zone. No changes to U.S. policy followed, but the report served as evidence that a coalition of Black activists in Panama and the United States had aligned in their shared interest in bringing the indignities of Jim Crow in the Canal Zone to an end.
The end to official racial segregation in the Canal Zone schools came shortly after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Although the Zone did not fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Canal Zone government opted to use the Brown case to justify reorganizing local schools as “Latin American” and “U.S.” schools. Race would no longer be used to separate students, but citizenship would still determine who had access to the Zone schools. One exception was the Panama Canal College, which eventually allowed tuition-based admittance to Panamanian citizens. The end to explicit race-based segregation in K-12 schooling was thus anti-climactic — 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 the Zone schools. Roy Bryce-Laporte, born in Panama City, was both a student and a teacher in the Canal Zone schools before migrating to the United States. A scholar and public intellectual, his doctoral work at the University of California at Los Angeles focused on Black immigrant experiences in the United States. He argued in 1973 that “black immigrants are subject to white racist discrimination, aware of their subjugation, and prone to sympathize and participate in the domestic struggle for black liberation and community development.” He recognized that regardless of place of birth, Black immigrants arrived in the United States having already experienced racial discrimination, including U.S.-sponsored Jim Crow in territories under U.S. control.
Nowhere was that clearer than in the activism of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians in the United States who, allied with activists in Panama, pushed for an end to U.S. control of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone. These Black immigrants undertook the hard work of educating a broad U.S. audience about the rights owed to the Black people who had for decades lived and worked in the Canal Zone area.
In 1977 Panama and the United States signed a treaty that finally reverted the canal and Zone area to Panamanian hands, a process that began in 1979 and culminated in 1999. Schooling for non-U. S. citizens continued during this time, albeit with diminishing numbers and under the auspices of the “Latin American” schools. As was the case with earlier generations, many educators and students nonetheless continued to embrace a Black internationalist tradition.
Bryce-Laporte brought his hemispheric understanding of Black life to the U.S. institutions where he worked, including as the 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 work challenging Jim Crow at home helped forge an undeniable link between Black communities in Panama and the United States. Members of these communities worked across borders to denounce Jim Crow and create meaningful and long-lasting Black internationalist networks capable of combating white supremacy across the hemisphere. This lesson resonates anew in 2022 as U.S. domestic institutions seek to silence Black histories.