Prologue Magazine

The Panama Canal

The African American Experience

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Patrice C. Brown

The history of the Panama Canal is full of stories detailing the experiences of many different nationalities during the construction and operation of the canal. Although the exploits of white Americans, Chinese "coolies," and West Indians have been highlighted in various books and articles, those of African Americans have not been similarly chronicled. African Americans' experiences did not always follow established patterns or have predictable outcomes. Their dual identity of being American and black set them apart from a large population of aliens of color and technically granted them privileges on par with white American employees. But these privileges were denied them by means of an officially sanctioned discriminatory employment system. The unique dual character of being an African American employee in the Canal Zone is worthy of examination.

Record Group 185, Records of the Panama Canal, is an overlooked source of information documenting African American involvement in this major twentieth-century construction project. Several series of records (General Correspondence, 1904–1914; General Records, 1914-1960; and Alpha Files, 1904–1960) contain a substantial amount of information concerning how African Americans, white Americans, Panamanians, West Indians, and canal authorities responded to general living and working conditions in the Canal Zone.

African Americans started arriving on the Canal Zone in the early construction years of 1904–1908. They secured employment as many others did, directly through the various canal recruitment offices in the United States or through contractors doing work in the Canal Zone. Upon arrival, they ran headlong into a separatist/racist employment system that affected every phase of life there.

Canal authorities assigned employees to either the gold or silver roll, and this difference determined a person's status. Separate towns, quarters, schools, libraries, recreation facilities, transportation, restrooms, and drinking fountains were assigned according to whether the employee appeared on the "gold" or "silver" payroll. Signs were posted to let all employees know which facilities were for their use only. The classification "gold" or "silver" also determined pay rates, vacations, and pensions.

Americans maintained that the French had established the terms "gold roll" and "silver roll," but it was under the Americans that these labels took on racial connotations. The employment system officially stipulated that the skill of the workman and the type of job he held determined whether it was a "gold" or "silver" job. Moreover, it required that the employee be paid in the currency of his native country. Technicians and foremen or other classes of skilled workers were paid in gold. Laborers or other classes of unskilled workers were paid in silver. It is apparent from the records that the better quarters, vacations, and the like were reserved for those on the "gold" roll. It is important to note that canal authorities never officially used the terms "white" or "colored"; however, officials and employees alike came to equate the terms "gold" with white and "silver" with colored.

The majority of those on the gold roll were white Americans or Europeans, while the majority of those on the silver roll were people of color. In the beginning there might have been some basis for the statement regarding skill, but the canal authorities took steps to remove those people of color on the gold roll and transfer them to the silver roll. In 1906 the chief engineer of the Panama Canal issued a memorandum to place all colored men then on a "gold hourly basis" on the "silver hourly basis." No justification was given for this change, not even the type of job held. The most obvious reason seemed to be race. As noted in the following statement by the commissary manager, race alone was used to justify the removal of "colored" employees from the gold to the silver roll:

It would, I think, be very impolitic to separate, all of the Commissary employees, by color putting all the colored men on the silver roll. . . . We have a number of colored men in charge of Departments, who give from $2,000 to $5,000 bond; all our salesmen in the Retail stores are also colored men, and these men are in charge of goods which are readily convertible into cash. We also have two or three colored clerks in our shipping Office, who are very valuable men and draw larger salaries than some of our white clerks.1

Subsequently, canal authorities added the factor of citizenship to the equation. At the same time the memorandum was issued, an exception was made for African Americans:

Will you kindly arrange to put all colored men, excepting those from the United States, holding contracts, who have not worked six months continuously, on the silver roll, effective December 15, 1906 or January 1, 1907, paying them the equivalent in silver to that which they are now drawing on gold.2

So now there was a line drawn between American citizens and aliens. There were only a handful of ?colored? Americans on the gold roll, but canal authorities soon found themselves entwined in questions of race. They found it hard to grant gold roll privileges to "colored" Americans in the face of racial views held by white Americans at all levels of government in the Canal Zone. This bias is shown in a statement by D. D. Gaillard, then acting chairman and chief engineer:

The question of certain American negroes holding "gold" contracts keeps coming up from time to time. Have you taken the matter up with the Washington office and your labor agents, so that no more American negroes will be given "gold" contracts? Do you think it will be better to get out a special "silver" contract for American negroes hired in the States, or have them sent down with a special letter from your representative in the States, in each case?3

Canal authorities remedied this situation by ceasing to hire American Negroes for the gold roll, although they allowed the few still carried on the gold roll to remain there. From early 1907 on, "special" contracts were devised that put African Americans on the "silver" roll but granted them some privileges given to American citizens on the "gold" roll. These privileges changed over time but included paid leaves of absence, free quarters, receipt of ice, purchase of commissary books for cash in gold commissaries, and free coal.

If job skill alone determined roll placement, then all supervisors, teachers, clerks—all jobs with similar skill levels—would be carried on the gold roll, but this was not the case. There were supervisors, teachers, and clerks of color who were carried on the silver roll.

I do not favor placing any colored silver clerk on the gold roll as the colored question raises trouble and I am frankly "agin it" for that reason, no matter how good a clerk he is.4

Even teachers were categorized by color despite the educational levels reached by some. The superintendent of schools recommended that Alfred E. Osborne, a naturalized citizen of the United States, be "employed as an American citizen on the silver roll . . . as a teacher in La Boca colored school as he holds Bachelor's Degree from Chicago University."5

Distinctions were made that cut across racial and citizenship lines. White Americans were treated differently from black Americans. However, black Americans on the gold roll were treated differently from black Americans on the silver roll, who in turn were treated differently from the native "colored" populations on the silver roll. Of course, these distinctions caused problems because Canal authorities refused to officially acknowledge that both the gold and silver rolls were based on race as well as citizenship and not on job skill. Things began to unravel when African Americans on both the gold and silver rolls started to demand their rights as American citizens. Then it became clear that if a person looked like a silver employee, he was treated like one; the subject of citizenship was not brought up.

The multilayered problems of citizenship and race created much confusion and resentment for African Americans. How they fit into the scheme of things caused friction between white Americans and "colored" American employees, created numerous problems for canal officials, and caused confusion regarding the rights of American Negroes on both rolls.

African Americans on the gold roll found themselves in a dilemma. They often encountered problems when they presented themselves at windows marked "gold." They were denied service or told to go to the silver window where they "belonged." Canal authorities came up with ways to identify American citizens of color, stamping commissary books or issuing special gold series metal checks so they would get the proper service accorded to them. For instance, canal postal workers wanted to know if "these people are to be allowed to transact their business in the white lobby of the post office." 6 The issue of service was a constant problem because service was provided based on one's appearance (color). This issue is amply documented in the files.

Chairman George W. Goethals, head of the canal organization, received a complaint from a "colored" American employee on the gold roll. The employee had been told that he had to remove his hat before he would receive any service at the Cristobal commissary. He pointed out that no such requirement was made of white employees. In a letter to the employee, the chairman explained that the order was issued by the inspector of commissaries and "as this order resulted in discrimination between citizens of the United States it was revoked, and it is hoped there will be no further trouble on that account." 7

In another letter, a "colored" American employee on the gold roll wrote to Chairman H. F. Hodges about being unable to make purchases in the local commissary reserved for gold employees. The chairman's response was grudgingly in favor of the employee's rights: "we cannot afford to subject the few American negroes who are employed on the gold roll to any marked discrimination on account of their color. If they claim the privilege, of making their purchases in the commissaries on the gold side, it will have to be conceded to them."8

African Americans were not the only persons subjected to this type of treatment. The files document the frustration and exasperation of West Indians, East Indians, Chinese, and Panamanians with the "gold" and "silver" system. The burden of this unequal treatment was not limited to canal employees. West Indian ministers and East Indian businessmen are among those chronicled as receiving less than cordial treatment at the canal post offices, as stated in a memorandum from C.H.C. Calhoun to the governor of the Canal Zone:

I do not think this man or matter is worthy of further consideration. We have already done more for these people than they deserve or appreciate properly. They want to be served in the white lobby which is impossible, because they are not white and if employed by Canal would be on the silver roll— besides it is against the religion of certain castes to take a bath oftener than once a year and others use a vile smelling oil in their coiffures. We cannot build either a special lobby or a special post office for them which seems to be what they want.9

African Americans on the silver roll were not always successful either in getting "their constitutional rights" or "a square deal." Piecemeal concessions were granted only as requested and only when canal authorities thought it necessary. Requests by African Americans to be transferred to the gold roll were regularly turned down. They were told repeatedly that it was not their nationality but their job that determined whether they were on the gold or silver roll. At the same time, other contradictory statements were being made: "please see that all American Negroes in the service of the Commission are paid in gold. It is not desired to transfer them to the gold roll, but they are to be paid in United States currency."10

On many occasions, canal authorities made clear their understanding of gold and silver. To them "gold" meant white, and "silver" meant colored:

I believe that there is no necessity for these cases. If white Americans are needed, I think we should employ them on the gold roll, and I would recommend that there be a ruling that the employment of [white] Americans on the silver roll be not permitted under any circumstances. The silver roll was not created for [white] Americans any more than the gold roll was created for negroes.11

Canal officials rebuked American Negroes to use common sense and follow the course of least resistance. This rather condescending attitude was voiced by H. H. Rousseau to the executive secretary: "I may state frankly that the division of employees between gold and silver is made partly to avoid friction and trouble between the different races of people on the Isthmus."12 African Americans were further instructed to "save yourself and others annoyance if you would transact your business on the side where others of your race transact their business."13

Organizations outside the Canal Zone, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wanted to know "why the terms 'gold' and 'silver' were used to distinguish the color of the working force."14 The authorities explained it in the historic terms of paying imported skilled labor in gold and unskilled native labor in silver, although they neglected to add that the entire work force was being paid in gold (U.S. currency) at the time. The argument of job skill was also used. Only a small minority both in America and the Canal Zone noted that the majority of the skilled jobs were held by whites. The prevailing racial views in America supported the notion that there were not many if any people of color qualified for skilled positions. The situation in the Canal Zone seemed natural to the majority of people concerned. Canal authorities therefore did not feel compelled to change it.

It is ironic that canal authorities continued to cling to the terms gold and silver long after it was decided to pay all employees in gold currency. They justified continuing the two rolls by the need to identify employees who were entitled to free quarters and paid leave and other amenities. Canal authorities judged that the majority of silver employees "being accustomed to the tropics and the different mode of living they do not require special quarters or frequent change of climate which is so necessary to the health of the more skilled employees from a temperate zone." 15 However, it was an administrative headache as well as an expensive proposition to keep two set of payrolls, personnel files, and other records. The auditor for the Canal Zone suggested merging the two systems in the name of fiscal efficiency, but his recommendations were never adopted. Not until the mid-1950s were the terms dropped and the signs making distinctions between gold and silver employees taken down.

Panama Canal records reveal the contradictions, racial tensions, discrimination, and American privilege rampant in the Canal Zone. Citizenship mattered, but so did color, despite the official canal policy statements to the contrary. If an employee was white and an American citizen, he benefited from the system. However, if an employee was an African American, he encountered problems in securing the "rights" that went with American citizenship in the Canal Zone. Every ethnic group wanted to be on the gold roll because of the better housing, job opportunities, and schools, but they were denied the opportunity to advance or transfer to the gold roll. Into this equation entered the African American, not quite an American but different from the native population.

The few African American employees on the gold roll technically had the same privileges as white Americans on the gold roll as long as they were not "questioned" at the post office, commissary, or train depot. If questioned, life became difficult. They were often told by canal authorities to avoid embarrassment by going to the post office windows, train cars, and schools reserved for their race. The records of the Panama Canal document the inequalities, difficulties, and contradictions faced by black American employees of the Canal. Unfortunately, they had traveled to a foreign land only to face the same problems found at home.


1. Commissary manager to J. F. Stevens, vice-president, Feb. 15, 1907, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904-14, Records of the Panama Canal, Record Group 185, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter cited as RG 185, NA).

2. Stevens to Col. W. C. Gorgas, chief sanitary officer, Nov. 30, 1906, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904–14, RG 185, NA.

3. D. D. Gaillard, acting chairman and chief engineer, to Jackson Smith, Feb. 11, 1908, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904?14, RG 185, NA.

4. Cross reference sheet to letter from C. A. McIlvaine to Colonel Harding, Aug. 19, 1915, file 2-C-55, pt. 1a, General Records, 1914–34, RG 185, NA.

5. Memorandum, V. H. Barker, acting superintendent of schools, to executive secretary, Mar. 4, 1932, file 2-C-55, pt. 2, General Records, 1914–34, RG 185, NA.

6. Memorandum, John K. Barker, chief, Division of Civil Affairs, to McIlvaine, executive secretary, Aug. 31, 1914, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, General Records, 1914–34, RG 185, NA.

7. George W. Goethals, chairman, to Henry A. Hart, John Thomas, Mar. 18, 1910, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904–14, RG 185, NA.

8. H. F. Hodges, acting chairman, to Maj. E. T. Wilson, subsistence officer, Oct. 19, 1910, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904–14, RG 185, NA.

9. C.H.C. Calhoun to McIlvaine, Nov. 23, 1916, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.

10. Hodges, acting chairman, to E. J. Williams, disbursing officer, Feb. 8, 1909, file 2-C-55, pt. 1, General Correspondence, 1904–14, RG 185, NA.

11. Memorandum, H. H. Rousseau to the executive secretary, Dec. 8, 1915, file 2-C-55, pt. 1a, General Records, 1914-34, RG 185, NA.

12. McIlvaine to Mrs. William Swiget, Jan. 1, 1916, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, RG 185, NA.

13. McIlvaine to Walter V. Eagleson, Sept. 2, 1914, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, RG 185, NA.

14. John R. Shillady, secretary, NAACP, to Governor Chester Harding, May 21, 1919, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, RG 185, NA.

15. Harding to Shillady, June 13, 1919, file 28-B-233, pt. 1, General Records, 1914–34, RG 185, NA.


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