Image: A Pay Car in Colon on payday for “Silver Workers 1910.
The appellative “Silver” comes from the Gold and Silver Roll system implemented by the American administrators of the Canal Zone in 1904 and enforced by the American government from the very beginning of what is historically known as the American Construction Era of the Panama Canal Zone which spanned the years 1904-1914.
The Gold and Silver Roll system, the imported version of “Jim Crow,” or the racially segregated system of the United States, became the foundation for Panama Canal Zone society and economy until it was phased out in the 1960’s.
Since the days of the building of the railroad and during the French period, the system was adopted from the railroad’s policy of different payrolls and the separation of the races soon became an implanted phenomenon. By the time the second large wave of West Indians arrived in the first decade of the turn of the twentieth century, the separation of the races was a practiced and established institution.
The Gold and Silver Roll system in the Panama Canal Zone was more than just a pay system designed to maintain a more privileged class of white semi-skilled and skilled workers happy with their stay in Panama. The Gold Roll, paid in American gold dollars, reflecting a much higher pay scale than in the U.S., at first was comprised of chiefly white American employees brought in from the United States mainland.
The Gold Roll enjoyed all of the privileges and amenities that the system had to offer. They enjoyed, of course, much higher pay, better and more spacious housing facilities for families, excellent and well equipped schools for their children, better nutrition, better health care, almost free entertainment and recreational facilities and a generally better quality of life. Their (the Gold Roll) comfort and satisfaction were central factors in most decisions made by the Canal administrators.
Other benefits that became very important “draws” in the recruitment process were sick leave and “home” leave, a privilege that included paid return passage back to their home state for a holiday while their job was preserved for them on the Zone. Although some blacks and other non-American members of the Gold roll were entitled to the “privileges” of this special group of people, they were, nevertheless placed at a lower pay scale and denied certain benefits, particularly, sick and home leave.
For the Silver Roll, whether they were West Indian or Black American citizens, however, every aspect of their lives would be segregated and generally inferior in quality to that offered to the members of the favored Gold roll workers. The separate housing areas then would become small cities that were also kept apart. Thus, all these rules and policies started becoming a reality as soon as the army of West Indian Blacks had given their all to secure and clean most of the area, making Panama fit for human habitation.
For the brave and stalwart black workers who had been the pioneers and the backbone of all the rugged preparations of the Canal construction before this new era of demarcation of the class structure began, the drastic changes that soon followed would make theirs a totally depressing experience. Soon they would see their expectations for any professional advancement stymied.
In 1908, after President William Howard Taft directed an executive order to apply the “nationality test” or restriction to all hiring on the Canal Zone, the pressure was on in the Zone to stop hiring any blacks as engineers on the rail road. By 1909 the once plentiful skilled Jamaican workers and U.S. Blacks who had been acting as “engineers of any kind, yard masters, hostlers, boat pilots, machinists, carpenters, wiremen,”* division engineers and even postal clerks, were barred from such positions in the future.
Despite objections from even the white department heads who valued their very competent and skilled black workers, the massive demotions in the thousands began. Of this period it has been said, “It was one of the most vicious episodes in canal history, remembered and resented deeply by the West Indians for years afterwards.”
Thus, the foundation for the Silver and Gold Roll system was established and, despite the many stumbling blocks it placed in the way of the “Silver People,” they managed to enjoy periods of prosperity and growth and, at the same time, give rise to a new culture, history and literature in their new home, the Republic of Panama.
The full workforce in the last year of construction (1914) numbered about 45,000 to 50,000, which nearly equaled the combined populations of Colon and Panama City. But, the total number of white North Americans was only about 6,000, of whom roughly 2,500 were women and children. Of the remaining 44,000 workers, easily 80% were of West Indian descent and members of the “Silver Roll.”