To look at Lilia Wilson today, 76 years after she made athletic history on February 8, 1938, when she managed to break her own High Jump record by leaping over 4 feet, 9 inches in the 1938 Central American and Caribbean Games (hosted by Panama that year), you can see that time has done little to dull the enthusiasm she feels about life.
“I surprised meself!” she admitted to us with a sparkle in her eye as we asked her what she felt that fateful day when she was just a teenager of seventeen and won the gold medal for this feat. We think she’s pretty spunky, in fact, and we wanted to know more about her and the extraordinary people she came from.
Born Lilia Virginia Wilson on December 9, 1921 in Santo Tomás Hospital in Panama, she seemed destined for greatness in just about anything she might involve herself in. Her parents were both born in Jamaica; her father Simeon Wilfred Wilson from St. Thomas in the East (parish) and her mother, Dorcas Valenciana Bryan from Portland; both came to Panama seeking new opportunities in the Panama construction project. Her father worked for a while in Culebra, which was probably the most dangerous and demanding of the Canal work sites, but he soon abandoned working in the Canal Zone because he felt grieved by seeing so much death around him, deaths of West Indian workers.
He eventually opened his own cleaners and laundry establishment on “M” Street and called it Mr. Wilson’s Clean and Press. He began taking in a lot of work from the Silver Roll workers who worked on the Canal while also catering to the Gold Roll employees by providing prompt pickup and delivery of their garments. Lilia herself helped her father out with delivery and she underscored how her father started out with just a charcoal burning iron and built up his business to include a tailoring department provided by Mr. Irving who partnered with him for many years.
Mr. Wilson’s Clean and Press became one of the many West Indian meeting places and he was witness to the many abuses suffered by the Black workers on the Zone. His was often the first place where the deaths of many of their companions was reported and people used the business to bring and exchange messages from relatives in the islands.
Of her mother, Dorcas, Lilia said that she was a very resourceful person and a strict disciplinarian and a stalwart Salvationist- She had her hands full with the large family she cared for. Lilia was the second born after Doris Elalita Wilson, Lilia, Roy Wilson, Marcos Wilson, Vicente Wilson, Alonso Wilson, Alcides Wilson, and Dosita Wilson. The family always lived in the Sojourner’s Hall Building on “P” Street for their entire history in Panama City and that is where Lilia attended English School with one of the greatest Jamaican School Masters, Teacher Thomas.
Lilia informed us that Teacher Thomas was an M.B.E, Master of the British Empire, a title of chivalry (i.e. a Knight) conferred by the British Crown on individuals of great achievement. This would explain why Teacher Thomas and his school turned out so many high achieving students who often, with only a 6th grade education, went on to be trailblazers in their own vocations overseas as well as in Panama. To this day Teacher Thomas is lovingly remembered.
Lilia has vivid recall of her adolescent years and of the remarkable people who made up her community. Mr. Louis Deveaux, for instance, a wealthy entrepreneur from British Guyana, made Panama his second home and set himself to the task of building up institutions that would generate not only wealth but employment for especially the West Indian community. He wanted to open factories in Colon and he, in fact, bought land and built a school in Panama to train young people in useful occupations.
He opened the school naming Lilia as its Director and Lilia hired all of her friends as instructors. She was responsible for directing the student bakers, hairdressers and seamstresses. Being a self-taught seamstress herself, she already had experience with some of the twenty machines that Mr. Deveaux bought to equip the school. She directed the school for three years while she operated her dress shop in Calidonia which was just above what is today’s Aurora’s Shoe Store. After not receiving any pay for all the work she did she left the job to someone else to attend to her, now thriving, business.
She left Panama bound for New York City in September of 1961, a bit later in life. It was only to be a vacation trip but she decided to stay and, as with many West Indian Panamanians, soon found employment in the Garment District as an Assistant designer. She designed patterns and made original designs, which was her specialty and stayed working in New York’s Fashion industry until she retired in her late seventies. She made up her mind, however, to return to Panama to live out her retirement, which she did.
It pleases us to highlight this fearless woman’s life with so much talk these days in Panama of young women athletes breaking records and winning Olympic medals etc.. Back in 1938 Lilia Wilson, a wiry slip of a teenager, surprised everybody, even herself, with an astonishing High Jump that broke her own record.
“Although we had great confidence in her, we did not think that she would beat Miss (Beryl) Delgado of Jamaica, who was favored to win. Nevertheless, Lilia not only reached but surpassed the bar at a height of 4 ft, 9 inches, a formidable jump for a woman.”
La Estrella de Panamá, Wednesday, February 9, 1938
We agree with the reporter, Lilia has indeed surpassed many hurdles in life that would have crushed any other woman and we value her as a Cultural Treasure of the Silver People of Panama.