Dr. José Antonio Price- Rescued from a Shipwrecked History

Dr. José Antonio Price

Dr. José Antonio Price

The following story, written by Ariel René Perez Price, was first published in La Estrella de Panamá on May 26, 2013 under the title “José Antonio Price- Un Naúfrago de la Historia.” With his permission we have translated it into English and posted it here on our Heritage blog as a glowing (and well documented) example of the value that some of our descendants place on their West Indian-Panamanian heritage.

Dr. José Antonio Price- Rescued from a Shipwrecked History

by Ariel Rene

His tomb disappeared after a storm. His legacy as a doctor and surgeon was also in danger. A grandson decided to rescue his memory.

The exceptional legacy of Dr. José Antonio Price (1890-1951) languished for a long time in the forgotten annals of our distorted Panamanian history. As has occurred with other prominent Afro-Panamanians, the elitist pen of official historians has managed to ignore our history. This paper is an attempt to rescue Dr. Price’s outstanding contribution.

The year was 1913 and our country had just celebrated its first decade of existence. It was a time of profound social upheaval during which the migratory phenomenon, driven by the construction of the Panama Canal, would reconfigure forever Panama’s ethnic composition. Caught up in this maelstrom, this Afro-descendant of Caribbean origin struggled to integrate socially into his rightful place within this land he called home.

It was within this context that José Antonio Price, a humble son of immigrants from Belize, managed to accomplish something that few Panamanians, regardless of their social status, could boast of achieving during the early twentieth century: to become a surgeon.

His exceptional achievement was not due to any random event but required enough inner strength to face difficult obstacles set by the prevailing racism of the time. To achieve his goal from Bocas del Toro he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, where he finished high school. At just 18 years of age his next stop would lead him to the southern United States in which reigned a brutal institutionalized system of segregation called Jim Crow.

Between 1908 and 1913 he studied pharmacy and medicine in two segregated universities: Shaw University located in Raleigh, North Carolina and The University of West Tennessee -College of Medicine and Surgery, where he eventually received his degree as a Surgeon.

The Path of Our Research

Until recently, almost nothing was known about the historical significance of Dr. José Antonio Price’s background and character. A little blurb included in the Blue Book of Panama, published in 1916, was perhaps the only documentary piece that made any allusion to his achievements.

This glaring deficiency led his descendants to contact Dr. Todd Savitt, professor at East Carolina University and an expert on the African-American history of Medicine. The noted scholar was able to locate documentary evidence of Dr. Price’s studies at the University of West Tennessee, identified as one of its 284 graduates. This private academic institution closed its doors in 1924 as a result of the Flexner Report, which also caused the closure of a dozen other universities for African Americans in the southern United States.

The oral tradition of the Price family uncovered the intervention of an influential person of the time who helped to fund the doctor’s studies. We are referring to Dr. Carlos Antonio Mendoza who resided on Colon Island between 1905 and 1908, some years before becoming president of the Republic.

Back to the Tropics

100 years ago, the young physician arrived in Bocas del Toro fresh from the port of New Orleans, arriving on the steamer Abangarez owned by The United Fruit Company. On his return Price founded the “Farmacia Central” and Santa Fe Hospital, located between Central Avenue and Fourth Street on Isla Colon.

A thorough search conducted through the pages of The Star and Herald of the 1920’s produced several anecdotes referring to Dr. Price’s professional work in the province. There is evidence that he also served as coroner and port quarantine director of Almirante in Bocas del Toro.

The Official Gazette (Gaceta Oficial) also recognizes his appointment in 1923 and 1924 as Medical Officer in the  Eastern Section of the Province of Chiriqui and in Darien Province by President Belisario Porras. In 1929 he participated in the formation of the National Medical Association. A photo taken by  Carlos Endara captured during the meeting shows Dr. Price among the attendees, although, for reasons yet to be clarified, his signature was omitted from the original act.

His Political Activity

There is evidence that Dr. Price was also a liberal, close to Carlos A. Mendoza, Belisario Porras, Francisco Arias Paredes and Ernesto de la Guardia, prominent politicians of their time. From 1914 he was elected member on several occasions to the Municipal Council of Bocas del Toro, eventually becoming its president for the period 1932-1936.

He was also one of the councilors responsible for the construction of Isla Colon Cemetery (1920-1922). On one of the ancient walls of the necropolis hangs a plaque that bears his name, and it is the only physical evidence of his work as a public official.

A Historic Rescue

The story of Dr. José Antonio Price deserves to be told. It chronicles the life journey of a humble Panamanian in search of knowledge and improvement who decides to successfully confront the calamities of a hostile and degrading environment marked by racism. His victory should be celebrated by all Panamanians as a sign of our best values.

The research process conducted in Panama, Belize, Jamaica and the United States which shaped his story, was written by Ariel Perez Price, one of his grandsons, told in a literary novel format.

The doctor’s life came to an end in early 1951 due to an aggressive cancer. His tomb, originally located in Isla Colon Cemetery, could not be located. It is presumed his grave was claimed by the ocean during a stormy night back in the seventies. We are determined not to allow Dr. José Antonio Price’s example nor his inspiring accomplishments disappear into the pages of forgotten history.

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