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The “silver roll” workers and discrimination in the Canal Zone

The labor force consisted mainly of young, strong and healthy men recruited from the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique and St. Martin. These workers were lured to Panama by the promise of better wages and free medical care. However, from the outset, the Isthmian Canal Commission assigned the canal employees to different groups depending on their training and ethnicity. Workers assigned to the “gold (pay) roll” were American citizens given administrative positions and posts as foremen. “Silver (pay) roll” employees were skilled workers from Europe (Spain, Greece and Italy) and unskilled workers from the West Indies and Panama. Gold-roll employees earned wages in U.S. $ gold, obtained housing and commissary privileges and had free access to clubs and entertaining facilities. On the other hand, silver- roll employees were paid lower wages in Colombian pesos (1 Colombian peso = U.S. $ 0.50) and were not eligible for better housing or purchasing food and clothing in the commissaries. Crowded housing and poor nutrition contributed to a higher incidence of pneumonia and tuberculosis among these workers. Hospital wards were segregated by color and morbidity and mortality were ten times higher than among white employees. Gorgas stated that if there was anything he could do to improve the health of the workers, he would raise their salaries. Despite protests from workers and activists, the administrative authorities did little to improve the living conditions of the silver-roll workers.

Ship transporting workers from Barbados to Panama. National Library of Medicine.

Quarters for black workers. Library of Congress.

Ancon Hospital ward 13 for colored patients. Library of Congress.

Workers transporting boxes of dynamite. Watercolor by O. Sanjur, Panama. E. Chaves-Carballo Panama Canal Collection.

Canal Zone 10-cent stamp honoring West Indian labor.

Last modified: Mar 12, 2019