The Silver Employees Death Benefit Association and its Beginnings

In the image depositors to the first credit union on the Canal Zone, The Cristobal Federal Credit Union, are served. Image thanks to Mr. Anthony McLean.

by Lydia M. Reid

The large West Indian workforce that came to Panama to work on the construction, maintenance, and administration of the Panama Canal once it was open to the world probably never imagined that their dreams of “making good” in the economic sense would, more often than not, turn to visions of penury- a dream turned into a painful reality.  Paid on the basis of the minimum “Silver” or “Local” rate many of the Silvermen and their families lived under extremely limited and precarious conditions.

As we’ve seen in our previous article describing the intricacies of the Gold/Silver Roll system, the horizons of the Silvermen and women and their families were institutionally and painfully circumscribed by the dual pay system.  They were destined to be born, live and die under impoverished conditions were it not for their organizational genius and their determination to “turn lemons into lemonade.”

The conditions we refer to were underscored by the array of hurdles placed in their way on both sides of the dividing fence.  None of the banks established within the American Canal Zone or within the jurisdiction of the Republic of Panama, for example, considered the Westindians worthy subjects of credit.  That immediately placed the banking system out of reach to the Westindians.  The possibility of retiring with a pension whether through any form of old age benefit or by disability was also virtually impossible.  As one can imagine, the implacable financial squeeze in which they were placed resulted in a proliferation of lenders with its accompanying set of abuses.

Among these new enemies to the already stretched pockets of the Silver people were the unethical and usurious practices of the many “financieras” or lending companies that sprang up like spores on the Panamanian scene.  This situation further shrank the low purchasing power of the Silver Roll which, in turn, crippled their social welfare network.  The white American workers- the Gold Roll- on the other hand, had basically all their social welfare needs met by the Panama Canal Company.

In January 1933 the Silver workers founded “The Silver Employee Death Benefit Association” organized with the express purpose of raising funds through the savings accounts of individual workers to assist their families upon the death of the worker.  Although it accumulated a substantial fund, this initiative was not welcome at all levels of employees because it had no further utility after the death of the depositors.

It was Mr. Foster Bournes, a Jamaican by birth and a militant spokesman for the workers, who supported the idea of organizing a cooperative credit union for the non- American workers, in its majority the black Silver Roll, although there were Asian and European members of the Silver Roll.  The concept of the cooperative was new in Europe and was being spread throughout the world.

In 1934 the United States adopted a federal law regarding cooperatives and two years later the Americans on the isthmus, organized a cooperative for exclusive use by them, the Gold Roll, barring membership to any non-American worker including the Silver Roll workers. Due to the rigid adherence to this type of sectarianism and exclusion they were not recognized by the American federal government through the Federal Credit Union Act and so the white Canal Zone workers adopted the regulations of the State of Delaware which did protect their charter.

Foster Bournes, knowing of this new banking entity contacted an American co-worker who worked in the same printing press where he labored and fully informed him of the details of this new credit union.  He, in turn, transmitted the news to his fellow members of the newly organized Union Local 713 UPW-CIO, who understood the situation and got to work.

Finally, in 1947, supported by the UPW-CIO’s main office, this group obtained the support of Canal Zone Administration and, in the absence of any legal basis or law in Panama or any experience in cooperative law, they managed to get an amendment passed to the Federal Credit Union Act in the U.S. to include the non-Americans in the Canal Zone area with favorable results.

In our next post, we will see how the credit union as well as the basis of the cooperative movement in Panama unfolded directly from the Silver townships of the Panama Canal.

**We are indebted to Mr. Anthony McLean, historian and owner of Etnia Negra de Panama for the background article outlining the history of the cooperative movement in Panama.

16 responses to “The Silver Employees Death Benefit Association and its Beginnings

  1. Amazing things here. I’m very glad to look your article. Thank you so much and I’m taking a look ahead to contact you.
    Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?


  2. This was my grandfather and was a very sweet and amazing man that everywhere he went rode a bike and also loved to smoke a pipe. Love you Daddy.


  3. Please inform me if the names James Henry Phillips and John Alleyne Phillips appeared on the Credit Union files. Are you aware the Colonial Secretary’s Office Records, Central Government Department Records re Panama has personal information about the workers? The University of Florida have some valid information.

    Thanks in advance.



  4. Renaldo Manuel Ricketts

    Do the names Adolphus Ricketts and Fitz Bannister appear in the credit union files these were my grand fathers.


  5. Patricia Smith

    Tried to email the certificate to (removed to protect recipient) and it came back saying the person did not have an account with yahoo.

    Please advise.

    Thank you.


    • Patricia,

      Thank you for checking with us. We are surprised that Yahoo responded this way. This has never happened before. If you are sending a scanned copy (either with a scanner or digital camera) it may have to do with a file size limit (it may be too large?). If so, try reducing the size of the image with ms paint or one of those and then try sending. In the meantime we will e mail you our other (g-mail) address and you can try that. Somehow we will get it to work.


      • Patricia Smith

        No problem. There’s a first time for everything. (smile) I believe the issue is more with aol than yahoo, as I am using a very old version. Sent it to the gmail address and it went through.

        Thank you.


  6. Patricia Smith

    My grandfather, Cyril D. Lashley, was a member of the Silver Employees Death Benefit Association. I have a certificate for him, he died in 1967, and would like to know if a death benefit is payable from this policy.

    Thank you.


    • Dear Mrs. Smith,

      Sorry for the delay in responding but we have taken the time to consult with some people who would know about the SEDBA and they have told us that we need to have a copy- not the original- of the certificate that you found. This would be an examination copy which you could either scan or photograph with your digital camera and send it in by e mail (just click e mail link on sidebar) to us. There were different types of certificates and policies made out to the members and some of them are still payable today. In order to answer your question we would have to see what kind of certificate it is.

      Lydia M. Reid


      • Patricia Smith

        Thank you for your prompt response to my request. I do have the certificate; however, I haven’t yet figured out how to email it to you.


  7. Unfortunately our Grandfather is no longer with us. He lived a long life full of new experiances many of which we could never imagin living through, witnessing or experiancing. I, my self am also honored to have had him as a Grandfather.


  8. as a matter of fact mr. foster bournes is my grandfather


    • Mariel,

      We are glad to hear from the grand daughter of such an honored and determined warrior for worker’s rights. Your grandfather must have been full of great stories about all that happened in Panama. Where is your grandfather now? We would love to hear from you.



  9. Hi Dennis!!

    Good to see you here. The stories abound about the Silver People on this web site as well as on the Silver People Chronicle. Take some time and get acquainted with navigation on these sites.

    You can always start at the beginning:

    Who Are the Silver People?

    The Silver and Gold Roll on the Panama Canal Zone.

    Click on the titles on the sidebar.



  10. Denni Ruggiero


    I am looking forward to learning more about the “Silver People” and your own families histories. Thank you for the work you and Roberto have undertaken.



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