Compiling a Library of the History of Blacks

This is the place where I spent long and fruitful hours full of exciting discoveries, the New York Public Library reading room in the heart of Manhattan.

This is the place where I spent long and fruitful hours full of exciting discoveries, the New York Public Library reading room in the heart of Manhattan.

Practically all of my experiences at gaining information regarding Blacks in this continent of the Americas have been fraught with frustrations. Some of the most famous and reliable libraries and archives have no registry for the history of Blacks or of people of African descent. So it has continued to be until our day here in a country like Panama where Blacks have been the virtual source of labor since the 16th century.

The undeniable fact that would prompt me, a lover of the art of writing, to continue to write these accounts to you underlines the glaring absence of information and/or documentation regarding the Westindian people of Panama. Although time and maturity would eventually heal the historically atrocious behavior of the gringos of the Panama Canal Zone, the fact remains that the reversion process of the Panama Canal did not deter the American authorities from taking vital archival information with them when their presence came to a close in 1999.  Thus, it has made doing research about Panamanian Westindians in their own country of Panama quite difficult even in our present age of easier accessibility to vital records.

In addition, and to make matters even more difficult, at the National Archives of Panama (Archivos Nacionales), for example, there is no functionary designated as Reference Librarian to orient researchers in this most important subject in our country where our historic and cultural presence would warrant the assignation of a special collection, in the very least.

Specialized Black Studies professionals, in fact, are even rarer today than in 1977 when I bravely, and perhaps naively, chose the subject as my college mayor in the United States.  Even in the department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies from which I graduated they were very worried in regards to my choice of subject matter. Although, I must confess, I placed great emphasis on the subject of Afro-Hispanic studies, I did what most of my enthusiastic classmates did, followed the Black American experience in the United States, sort of awaiting my time to get home to Panama to place the final touches on my specialty that, ultimately, would not even gain me a doctoral degree but would, nevertheless, feed my driving passion for studying my own roots and history.  This has accomplishment, if anything else, has helped me keep my sanity, my overall health and giving me a great deal of personal satisfaction.

The response I usually received, however, from the various department leaders was that I was neither Puerto Rican nor Black American, or, at least, that is how I interpreted the subtle rejections I received whenever I brought up themes that pertained to my personal experience.

It was not until I changed my focus to Gerontology that I could really center my Black Studies “experience” on the subject of the Aging and Aged minorities of the U.S., an eye-opening journey and one that I discovered to be fundamentally linked to my own cultural voyage.  This by no means signifies that I claim to be the first scholar to have studied black studies on his own account; on the contrary, I mean to emphasize that I really have a debt with other self taught scholars that I encountered along the way.

I found dedicated researchers who were just as passionate as I was as far back as the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and others who have come to my knowledge in recent years, scholars of the latter part of the 20th century, who have made it their life work to study their people of the African Diaspora of the Americas. They inspired me, in fact, to work towards the reshaping of the identity of a people who have been hidden from all of us for too long, and prompted my lifelong passion to be like some of these brilliant men and women.

This story continues.

3 responses to “Compiling a Library of the History of Blacks

  1. Lesley,

    We’ve been in touch with NARA and, although you may perceive their possession of the records of our ancestors in Washington D.C. as something positive, it has proven to be fraught with hurdles for us.

    For instance, I am in search of my grandfather, Joshua Reid’s, work and marriage records. He which was a man that laboured for the Canal and Canal Zone for more than 23 years. He was one of the Commission’s key Silver employees and our experience tells us that the period of his employment from the turn of the century until the day of his death was a tumultuous period of time for the Westindian worker.

    With that said it pains me as an American citizen to now hold on to beliefs that something awful has occured to all the records of men like our Silver forefathers.

    Yes, we do need your help and welcome you joining us in these endeavours. Please e-mail me and let me know where you are geographically located in CONUS so that we may be able to double teem them.

    Awaiting your response.



  2. I think that the US taking all the records is not a bad thing. It is all at the National Archives and a good researcher can and will take advantage of the fact that the records are in a central location.

    If you need any help along the way, this is an area of canal history that I am willing to help research.


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