Every so often we encounter a real jewel of history on other sites and friends’ on line publications. A brief history of “The Catherine Brown Home” here in Panama City’s Rio Abajo district was one of them which Eric Jackson, Editor in Chief of The Panama News has so graciously shared with us. We’re reposting it with his permission here on our heritage site so that you may have a glimpse into Panama’s dynamic history as lived by the Silver People of Panama. Thank you Eric!!
Five out of every six of the people who actually built the Panama Canal were black people from the West Indies, at the time mainly British subjects because the places from whence they came were British colonies. They were from all over, but particularly from Barbados and Jamaica. (The women who were brought in with the expectation that they would marry these men and thus avoid the drunken disorders of all-male labor camps? Generally French-speaking, from Martinique and Guadeloupe, but that’s another story).
After the canal was done many stayed on in Panama and took jobs with the canal, the Panama Railroad or the US military bases. However, until recognition and correction of an injustice by Dwight D. Eisenhower (who had served here between the World Wars) PanCanal had retirement pensions for American retirees, but not the West Indians.
Thus there was created the British Aid Society to help these retirees without pensions. As conditions changed the mission of the British Aid Society changed to address the conditions of needy elders in general, and although the British Embassy and community do pitch in, there came to be Germans, Americans, Canadians and others playing important roles in the British Aid Society, and people who are not West Indian and who never had a relationship with the Panama Canal receiving assistance.
The British Aid Society’s main project was the Catherine Brown Home for needy elders. As it is in Rio Abajo, it still retains a distinctive although not exclusionary West Indian identity. The home gets support from several of Panama’s English-speaking church congregations and other groups in the West Indian, British and German communities. This charity fundraising flea market is put on by the German ladies of the Lattemacchiato Group.
If you go to the Catherine Brown Home — and most of the folks there like to get visitors and tell their stories — you find in its residents a treasure trove of oral history history about Panama, mostly in English.