Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chocolate City turns Vanilia

The New York Times reported on 17 July, 2011, "A Population Changes, Uneasily," by Sabrina Tavernise: WASHINGTON — This city, the country’s first to have an African-American majority and one of its earliest experiments in black self-government, is passing a milestone.

Washington’s black population slipped below 50 percent this year, possibly in February, about 51 years after it gained a majority, according to an estimate by William Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

The shift is passing without much debate, but it is leaving ripples of resentment in neighborhoods across the city, pitting some of the city’s long-term residents, often African-American, against affluent newcomers, most of whom are white, over issues as mundane as church parking and chicken wings.“You can’t help but look around and see the face of the community changing before your eyes,” said Tom Sherwood, co-author of “Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.”

He added, “That can be an uncomfortable feeling, and you’re going to have some people acting out, expressing their concern in racial code words.”

On H Street, Pamela Johnson, an African-American who owns a small storefront building, said her property tax bill had more than tripled in the three and a half years since the city began building a streetcar system that she said she never wanted. She said that she could not afford to pay and that she was one of several dozen owners in danger of losing their properties in a tax sale.“This process was imposed on us, and now it’s driving us out of here,” said Ms. Johnson, sitting in a Jamaican restaurant on H Street, which now has new sidewalks, stylized street lamps and shiny streetcar tracks. “We see this as the city’s way of gentrifying these corridors.”

Charles Allen, a spokesman for Tommy Wells, the District of Columbia Council member who represents the area, said the district had gone out of its way to help Ms. Johnson and other property owners, including by lowering their property tax rates and persuading the city’s Office of Tax and Revenue to take them off the tax sale list. In addition, the Council just signed off on $723,000 in relief for small businesses hurt by the changes in the city.
“Blocks have turned from empty lots to active businesses,” Mr. Allen said, noting that 55 new businesses had opened in the area over the last few years. (Ms. Johnson says many stores have also had to close.) “Property values have increased. Most property owners on H Street are happy about that.”

Washington ranked third in median income growth among large cities in the past decade, and resentments like Ms. Johnson’s often are, perhaps inevitably, responses to a rising tide of market forces.

But race and class issues often overlap, and as the city’s demographics shift — the white population jumped by 31 percent in the past decade, while the black population declined by 11 percent — many less affluent blacks say they are feeling left out of the city’s improving fortunes. In April, the Census Bureau reported that Ward 8, in the city’s mostly poor and black southeast, had the highest jobless rate in the country.
“Change is good, but it kind of kicks some of us to the back of the bus,” said Shirley Parnell, a Department of Motor Vehicles worker who recently inherited her mother’s house near H Street, which came with $11,000 in back taxes.

Many prominent black leaders argue that the city is more diverse than ever, with more to do, less crime and a bigger tax base. City law requires developers to set aside a portion of new residential space for lower-income people.

“This is a cosmopolitan, artsy town,” said Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting congresswoman. “Black people laid down a culture that lives here. The flavor of the city is not going to change with whites moving in.”

Still, the influx of affluent newcomers has made low-income residents, particularly renters, nervous. About 38 percent of blacks were homeowners in 2009, compared with 56 percent of whites, according to Mr. Frey at the Brookings Institution.

Some of these poorer residents saw revitalization as code for efforts to drive them out, and the building of dog parks and bike and streetcar lanes as efforts by affluent whites to re-arrange spending priorities to suit themselves. That perception surfaced during the Democratic primary last year and was used — many say unfairly — as a criticism of Adrian M. Fenty, who was then the mayor.

“Fenty did things that were attractive to white people,” Marion Barry said in an interview. Mr. Barry is the storied former mayor who served time in prison, but is still so adored by his black constituency that he has remained in elected office.

Sterling Tucker, a former civil rights activist and City Council member, who now serves as the president of the National Theater, strongly disputed that characterization. “Most of Washington would regard what is happening on U Street and H Street as very positive,” Mr. Tucker said, in a reference to two traditionally black neighborhoods.

He added: “There are some blacks who like the image of blacks in control, but I’m not sure what that means. I think they are worried about losing political influence.”

The Rev. Cheryl J. Sanders, the pastor at the Third Street Church of God, in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, argues that race is important, particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods like hers. Her plan to raze buildings on church property to make room for more parking was blocked by her local neighborhood council in a vote that was divided evenly along racial lines. Blacks voted in favor of the church, long the social heart of the black community, and whites, concerned with preservation, opposed it. City preservation authorities later struck a compromise.

At stake, Ms. Sanders said, is the face of the nation’s capital and who gets to shape it. That privilege has special meaning here in Washington, whose black-majority government has given jobs to African-Americans and a way into a middle class that they had long been shut out of.

“It’s a question of who has the power to determine what this community is going to look like,” she said. “I want to have a voice in that. I don’t want to be told to ‘sit down and shut up while we cast the vision for the city.’ ”

Similar anxieties sprung up on H Street last fall, during a failed attempt by the area’s majority-white neighborhood council to ban the sale of chicken wings in a newly opened 7-Eleven (the bones attract rats and choke dogs, they argued). Other restrictions, like leaving hair salons off the list of businesses eligible for future development assistance, strike Ms. Johnson as attempts to erase the traditional character of the neighborhood.

Albert Hopkins Jr., a property owner in Ward 8, said romanticizing the past was misguided.

“Were we happy that we were 90 percent black?” he said (in fact, the city peaked at 71 percent black in 1970). “No. It was nothing to light a bonfire over, because we were 90 percent black without resources.”

Anwar Saleem, a former city bus mechanic who owns a women’s hair salon on H Street, said the streetcar offered the promise of future profits. He wants support for older businesses, but said he was already planning for the future, changing the name of his salon from Hair Rage International to Salon on H.

“Do you want to sell what you want, or do you want to sell what people want to buy?” he said. “If you change your attitude, guess what? It will change your pocket.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia

Transcription: An Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African descent are hereby discharged and freed of and from all claim to such service or labor; and from and after the passage of this act neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for crime, whereof the party shall be duly convicted, shall hereafter exist in said District.

  • Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That all persons loyal to the United States, holding claims to service or labor against persons discharged therefrom by this act, may, within ninety days from the passage thereof, but not thereafter, present to the commissioners hereinafter mentioned their respective statements or petitions in writing, verified by oath or affirmation, setting forth the names, ages, and personal description of such persons, the manner in which said petitioners acquired such claim, and any facts touching the value thereof, and declaring his allegiance to the Government of the United States, and that he has not borne arms against the United States during the present rebellion, nor in any way given aid or comfort thereto: Provided, That the oath of the party to the petition shall not be evidence of the facts therein stated.

  • Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint three commissioners, residents of the District of Columbia, any two of whom shall have power to act, who shall receive the petitions above mentioned, and who shall investigate and determine the validity and value of the claims therein presented, as aforesaid, and appraise and apportion, under the proviso hereto annexed, the value in money of the several claims by them found to be valid: Provided, however, That the entire sum so appraised and apportioned shall not exceed in the aggregate an amount equal to three hundred dollars for each person shown to have been so held by lawful claim: And provided, further, That no claim shall be allowed for any slave or slaves brought into said District after the passage of this act, nor for any slave claimed by any person who has borne arms against the Government of the United States in the present rebellion, or in any way given aid or comfort thereto, or which originates in or by virtue of any transfer heretofore made, or which shall hereafter be made by any person who has in any manner aided or sustained the rebellion against the Government of the United States.

  • Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That said commissioners shall, within nine months from the passage of this act, make a full and final report of their proceedings, findings, and appraisement, and shall deliver the same to the Secretary of the Treasury, which report shall be deemed and taken to be conclusive in all respects, except as hereinafter provided; and the Secretary of the Treasury shall, with like exception, cause the amounts so apportioned to said claims to be paid from the Treasury of the United States to the parties found by said report to be entitled thereto as aforesaid, and the same shall be received in full and complete compensation: Provided, That in cases where petitions may be filed presenting conflicting claims, or setting up liens, said commissioners shall so specify in said report, and payment shall not be made according to the award of said commissioners until a period of sixty days shall have elapsed, during which time any petitioner claiming an interest in the particular amount may file a bill in equity in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, making all other claimants defendants thereto, setting forth the proceedings in such case before said commissioners and their actions therein, and praying that the party to whom payment has been awarded may be enjoined form receiving the same; and if said court shall grant such provisional order, a copy thereof may, on motion of said complainant, be served upon the Secretary of the Treasury, who shall thereupon cause the said amount of money to be paid into said court, subject to its orders and final decree, which payment shall be in full and complete compensation, as in other cases.
  • Sec. 5. And be it further enacted, That said commissioners shall hold their sessions in the city of Washington, at such place and times as the President of the United States may direct, of which they shall give due and public notice. They shall have power to subpoena and compel the attendance of witnesses, and to receive testimony and enforce its production, as in civil cases before courts of justice, without the exclusion of any witness on account of color; and they may summon before them the persons making claim to service or labor, and examine them under oath; and they may also, for purposes of identification and appraisement, call before them the persons so claimed. Said commissioners shall appoint a clerk, who shall keep files and [a] complete record of all proceedings before them, who shall have power to administer oaths and affirmations in said proceedings, and who shall issue all lawful process by them ordered. The Marshal of the District of Columbia shall personally, or by deputy, attend upon the sessions of said commissioners, and shall execute the process issued by said clerk.

  • Sec.6. And be it further enacted, That said commissioners shall receive in compensation for their services the sum of two thousand dollars each, to be paid upon the filing of their report; that said clerk shall receive for his services the sum of two hundred dollars per month; that said marshal shall receive such fees as are allowed by law for similar services performed by him in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia; that the Secretary of the Treasury shall cause all other reasonable expenses of said commission to be audited and allowed, and that said compensation, fees, and expenses shall be paid from the Treasury of the United States.
  • Sec. 7. And be it further enacted, That for the purpose of carrying this act into effect there is hereby appropriated, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, a sum not exceeding one million of dollars.

  • Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That any person or persons who shall kidnap, or in any manner transport or procure to be taken out of said District, any person or persons discharged and freed by the provisions of this act, or any free person or persons with intent to re-enslave or sell such person or person into slavery, or shall re-enslave any of said freed persons, the person of persons so offending shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and on conviction thereof in any court of competent jurisdiction in said District, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not less than five nor more that twenty years.

  • Sec. 9. And be it further enacted, That within twenty days, or within such further time as the commissioners herein provided for shall limit, after the passage of this act, a statement in writing or schedule shall be filed with the clerk of the Circuit court for the District of Columbia, by the several owners or claimants to the services of the persons made free or manumitted by this act, setting forth the names, ages, sex, and particular description of such persons, severally; and the said clerk shall receive and record, in a book by him to be provided and kept for that purpose, the said statements or schedules on receiving fifty cents each therefor, and no claim shall be allowed to any claimant or owner who shall neglect this requirement.

  • Sec. 10. And be it further enacted, That the said clerk and his successors in office shall, from time to time, on demand, and on receiving twenty-five cents therefor, prepare, sign, and deliver to each person made free or manumitted by this act, a certificate under the seal of said court, setting out the name, age, and description of such person, and stating that such person was duly manumitted and set free by this act.

  • Sec. 11. And be it further enacted, That the sum of one hundred thousand dollars, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, is hereby appropriated, to be expended under the direction of the President of the United States, to aid in the colonization and settlement of such free persons of African descent now residing in said District, including those to be liberated by this act, as may desire to emigrate to the Republics of Hayti or Liberia, or such other country beyond the limits of the United States as the President may determine: Provided, The expenditure for this purpose shall not exceed one hundred dollars for each emigrant.

  • Sec. 12. And be it further enacted, That all acts of Congress and all laws of the State of Maryland in force in said District, and all ordinances of the cities of Washington and Georgetown, inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are hereby repealed.

Approved, April 16, 1862.

Gil Scott Heron - Washington D.C


Symbols of democracy, pinned up against the coast
Outhouse of bureaucracy, surrounded by a moat
Citizens of poverty are barely out of sight
Overlords escape in the evening with people of the night
Morning brings the tourists, peering eyes and rubber necks
To catch a glimpse of the cowboy making the world a nervous wreck
It’s a mass of irony for all the world to see
It’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington D.C.

It’s the nation’s capital
It’s the nation’s capital
It’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington D.C.
(mmmm-hmmm)

May not have the glitter or the glamour of L.A.
May not have the history or the intrigue of Pompeii
But when it comes to making music, and sure enough making news
People who just don’t make sense and people making do
Seems a ball of contradictions, pulling different ways
Between the folks who come and go, and one’s who’ve got to stay
It’s a mass of irony for all the world to see
It’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington D.C.

It’s the nation’s capital
It’s the nation’s capital
It’s the nation’s capital, it’s Washington D.C.

Seems to me, it’s still in light time people knifed up on 14th street
Makes me feel it’s always the right time for them people showing up and coming clean
Did make the one seem kind of numb


Gil Scott Heron - Washington D.C

"Transfer Day" in the United States Virgin Islands

The 31st of March is recognized every year as "Transfer Day" in the United States Virgin Islands. This day commemorates an event that occurred over eight decades ago, when the Danish West Indies were formally ceded to the United States by Denmark; thus, becoming the U.S. Virgin Islands, in exchange for twenty-five million dollars. The United States' interest in the Virgin Islands was primarily for their strategic location, while any economic benefits were secondary. The islands represented a much needed foothold in the Caribbean for the American navy, and later were looked toward as a base to guard the Panama Canal. American negotiations with the Danish government can be characterized as ones of strategic diplomacy. All offers of proposed purchase came on the heels of American military conflicts.

American interest in the Virgin Islands dates back to as early as the mid-1860's. At the eve of the Civil War, budding American imperialism, and the need for a Carribean naval base, prompted Secretary of State William H. Seward to begin to investigate the islands as a possible coaling station for U.S. naval and merchant vessels. On October 24, 1867, after nearly two years of extensive negotiation and a visit to the islands by Seward, himself, the Danish government ratified a treaty, in which Denmark would cede the islands of St. Thomas and St. John to the United States. The price was to be seven and a half million dollars in gold, provided the treaty received the consent of the islands’ population. Unfortunately, within a year the islands were visited by a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami and a fire.

The tsunami was so severe that it left the steamer, the U.S.S. Monogahela , Commodore Bissel, and its crew, stranded on the Frederiksted wharf. However, for more than two years the treaty failed to receive the ratification of the United States Congress in response to the wave of natural disasters, the imperialistic overtones of the treaty, and concerns over the possible impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

By the end of the Spanish American War, Secretary of State John Hay expressed renewed interest in the Virgin Islands to the Danish government. Beginning on January 29, 1900, and over another two years a new treaty was negotiated, in which the Danish government would cede the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix to the United States for the sum of five million dollars. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress. However, the Danes returned the thirty year-old diplomatic insult, and neither house of the Danish legislature ratified the treaty.
Subtle efforts to negotiate the purchase of the Virgin Islands by the United States continued after the failure of the Treaty of 1902. However, by 1915 American interest had become heightened by fears of the impending crisis in Europe. The General Board, headed by Admiral Dewey informed Secretary of State Robert Lansing, that the purchase of the islands would not be advantageous as the site of an American naval base in light of the recent acquisition of Puerto Rico, but that the purchase would be wise in order to deter any other power from gaining bases in the Caribbean. Dewey, felt that this tactical defense of the Panama Canal was just politically by the Monroe Doctrine and by increased German efforts to consolidate the islands through commercial, diplomatic or perhaps even military means.
In March of 1916, Secretary Lansing sent a drafted treaty to the Danish Ambassador in Copenhagen Dr. Maurice Egan, offering twenty-five million dollars in gold coins for the islands, with instructions to deliver the proposal to the Danish government. On August 14, 1916, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, a revised treaty was signed by Danish Minister Constantin Brun and Secretary of State Lansing. The U.S. Senate approved the treaty on September 7, 1916 and by December 21, 1916 the Danish Rigsdag had approved the treaty as well. Finally, on January 17, 1917 the treaty ratifications were exchanged and the treaty finalized.

The official transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States did not occur until 4:00 PM on March 31st, 1917, when a formal ceremony was held in the islands. At the State Department a U.S. Treasury Warrant for twenty-five million dollars was given to Danish Minister Brun.

Slavery and Freedom in the Caribbean and Latin America

The Legacy of Slavery: Unequal Exchange conference resulted from the passage of Senate Bills 2199 and 1737 in 2000 and was meant to address a number of issues related to the economic and political legacy of slavery, the roles of governments and businesses in this enterprise, and the question of reparations for the descendants of slaves. Series: "Legacy of Slavery"
Slavery and Freedom in the Caribbean and Latin America

Interior of Slave Pen

Interior of Slave Pen

The interior of a slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, shows the cells where people were held prior to being sold.

From its beginning -- ever since the nation's capital had been moved from Philadelphia in 1800 -- slavery was legal in Washington, D.C. With its proximity to both the upper and lower South, it would become a major center for the domestic slave trade, passing thousands of slaves through to the plantations of the deep South. Although Congress had the power to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia, it did not do so until 1862 -- the power of the proslavery forces was too strong. Slavery proponents knew that if they kept the institution visible in the nation's capital, it would act as a vivid symbol of their grasp on the nation. They were right: the presence of slavery was impossible to ignore. Visitors expressed disgust at the sight of slave coffles and holding pens in the capital of the "freest" nation in the world.

(source: PBS)

A Description of a Washington, D.C., Slave Pen

E. S. Abdy description of a Washington, D.C., slave pen


E.S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour...One day I went to see the "slaves' pen"--a wretched hovel, "right against" the Capitol, from which it is distant about half a mile, with no house intervening. The outside alone is accessible to the eye of a visitor; what passes within being reserved for the exclusive observation of its owner, (a man of the name of Robey,) and his unfortunate victims. It is surrounded by a wooden paling fourteen or fifteen feet in height, with the posts outside to prevent escape and separated from the building by a space too narrow to admit of a free circulation of air. At a small window above, which was unglazed and exposed alike to the heat of summer and the cold of winter, so trying to the constitution, two or three sable faces appeared, looking out wistfully to while away the time and catch a refreshing breeze; the weather being extremely hot. In this wretched hovel, all colors, except white--the only guilty one--both sexes, and all ages, are confined, exposed indiscriminately to all the contamination which may be expected in such society and under such seclusion. The inmates of the gaol, of this class I mean, are even worse treated; some of them, if my informants are to be believed, having been actually frozen to death, during the inclement winters which often prevail in the country. While I was in the city, Robey had got possession of a woman, whose term of slavery was limited to six years. It was expected that she would be sold before the expiration of that period, and sent away to a distance, where the assertion of her claim would subject her to ill-usage. Cases of this kind are very common.

Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834, Volume 2, London, 1835

(source: PBS Africans in America)

A Man A Plan A Canal - Panama


Thirty years of dreaming. Fifty miles of shortcuts. Thousands of dollars spent. Thousands of lives lost. The construction of the Panama Canal was simply mind-boggling. Now you can obtain an unprecedented look at the inside operations of the 30-year construction of this magnificent water works. Meet the pioneers one on one and hear firsthand what obstacles they faced. Learn why France jumped ship after 10 years and 20,000 lives later. Step-by-step follow the men who braved the building and turned a dream into reality by carving into the earth with their jaws of steel. Narrated by David McCullough.

NOVA (PBS) - A Man A Plan A Canal - Panama (1987)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cristo Negro de Portobelo: The Black Christ of Portobelo, Panama


"The Black Christ of Portobelo is a powerful influence in Panama,"


Nobody knows exactly how or when the Black Christ (El Cristo Negro) arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.


Cristo Negro de Portobelo

Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals. Many wear ornate purple robes that are discarded at midnight on the steps of the church in which the statue is now housed, Iglesia San Felipe. The robes announce that the wearer is responding to a divine command, doing penance for wrongdoing, or simply making an expression of faith.


Many stories surround the Black Christ statue’s arrival in this unlikely place. All agree that it was carved in Spain, arrived on a ship and was washed ashore at Portobelo. The rest is shrouded in the mists of time and myth.


One story holds that the ship carrying the heavy statue in a wooden crate met a terrible storm that drove it back into the harbor. The ship attempted to leave five times, but every time a sudden and unexpected storm endangered the ship and everyone aboard. On the final attempt, the crew jettisoned the crated Black Christ to lessen the weight and save their lives.

Fishermen, amazed by the lack of respect shown by the sailors, carried the Black Christ to their church and gave it a place of honor.


Another myth is that the figure Jesus of Nazareth was destined for the island of Taboga, off the Panamanian coast, but the Spanish shipper incorrectly labeled the shipment. Many attempts were made to send the statue to Taboga, but all attempts to remove it from Portobelo failed. The people of Portobelo, who suspected the figure had magical powers, said it wished to remain with them.


The sick, the troubled and the needy pray before the ornately robed statue of the Black Christ for the miracles they hope to receive, but it is said that if a promise is made and not kept there will be severe retribution. One story is of a man who prayed he would win the country’s top weekly lottery prize ($2,000) and promised that if he did he would paint the outside of the church.



Sure enough, he won the lottery, but he did not paint the church. He even told friends he did not intend to carry out his promise. Unable to resist what he saw as a good thing, he was back to visit the Black Christ the next year with the same request and promise. Lottery tickets are sold everywhere in Panama where people are, and many sellers are outside the church. He bought his ticket before setting off for home. On the way, he was killed in a traffic accident. In his pocket was the winning ticket.


The foot weary take a break after walk for Black Christ.

“¡El Cristo Negro cobra!” believers warn. The Black Christ calls in the markers!

The popular name, The Black Christ, is attributed to U.S. servicemen shortly after the Second World War. Some 500 arrived in a ship to celebrate the October festival. One witness of that particular day says that many of the U.S. visitors were so caught up in the emotional fervor that they began to shout “viva El Cristo Negro!” The name stuck everywhere except in Portobelo. A more familiar name is simply The Saint.


Mass is called at 6 p.m. on October 21. (Be there before 4 p.m. if you hope to get inside the church.) At exactly 8 p.m., 80 able-bodied men carry the statue from the church to begin a four-hour parade around the community. There is a carnival atmosphere.

The bearers take three steps forward, two back, in a similar manner to that of Spanish religious processions. But, unlike those of Spain, this procession has a special Latin American twist: a quick step to lively music. The bearers have freshly shaved heads, wear purple robes and have bare feet. It is a distinct honor to be chosen to bear the Black Christ, an honor paid for by sore shoulders and aching muscles the next day.

At exactly midnight, The Saint is returned to the church.One story holds that it is impossible to return the Black Christ before midnight. “It just gets too heavy to move.”


(source: Your Panama)

El Cristo Negro-Portobelo,Panama 2009

A Cargo Of Black Barbadian Ivory for Panama

CHAPTER II: A CARGO OF BLACK IVORY

ALTHOUGH the outbreak of yellow fever in Barbados was not serious, the quarantine wrecked my plans. I had expected to leave the island on the Royal Mail boat for Colon. But as long as the quarantine lasted no ship which touched at Bridgetown would be allowed to enter any other Caribbean port. ...

I told him my troubles without further introduction.

He turned out to be a man named Earner employed by the Isthmian Canal Commission to recruit laborers. It had been an interesting job experimenting in racial types. From first to last the Commission had tried about eighty nationalities, Hindoo coolies, Spaniards, negroes from the States, from Africa, from Jamaica, from the French Islands, to settle down to those from Barbados. They have proved the most efficient. This recruiting officer was about to send over a consignment of seven hundred on an especially chartered steamer. They would avoid the quarantine restrictions by cruising about the six days necessary for yellow fever to mature. Then, if their bill of health was clear they could dock. My new acquaintance was not exactly enthusiastic.
It would be easy to arrange for my passage on this boat, he said, but he did not think that one white passenger among this cargo of blacks would have a very pleasing time. But of course I jumped at the chance; it was this or the risk of being held up for weeks. I was considerably cheered when I looked over the boat. I was to have the first cabin all to myself and the freedom of the little chart-house deck under the bridge. With a pipe and a bag full of ancient books about the brave old days on the Spanish Main, I could even expect to enjoy the trip.

I told him my troubles without further introduction. After leaving the boat I met Earner at his office and we went to the recruiting station. On our way we walked through the little park which is grandiloquently called Trafalgar Square. There must have been two or three thousand negroes crowded along one side of it -applicants for work on the Canal Zone and their friends. The commission pays negro laborers ten cents an hour, and ten hours a day. Their quarters are free, and meals cost thirty cents a day. It is a bonanza for them. Barbados is vastly over-populated, work is scant, and wages unbelievably low.

Last year the Barbadian negroes on the Isthmus sent home money-orders to their relatives for over $300,000, so there is no end of applicants. Several policemen kept the crowd in order and sent them up into the recruiting station in batches of one hundred at a time. The examination took place in a large, bare loft. When Karner and I arrived we found two or three of his assistants hard at work. As the men came up, they were formed in line around the wall. First, all those who looked too old, or too young, or too weakly, were picked out and sent away. Then they were told that no man who had previously worked on the canal would be taken again. I do not know why this rule has been made, but they enforced it with considerable care. One or two men admitted having been there before and went away. Then the doctor told them all to roll up their left sleeves, and began a mysterious examination of their forearms. Presently he grabbed a man and jerked him out of the line, cursing him furiously. "You thought you could fool me, did you? It won't do you any good to lie, you've been there before. Get out!"


I asked him how he told, and he showed me three little scars like this, .'., just below the man's elbow.

"That's my vaccination mark," he said. "Every negro who has passed the examination before has been vaccinated like that, and I can always spot them."


Then he went over the whole line again for tracoma, rolling back their eyelids and looking for inflammation. Seven or eight fell at this test. Then he made them strip and went over them round after round for tuberculosis, heart trouble, and rupture. A few fell out at each test. I don't think more than twenty were left at the end out of the hundred, and they certainly were a fine and fit lot of men.
This is NOT Barbados, but Apartheid South Africa. The visuals seemed to match the text.
All during the examination I had never seen a more serious-looking crowd of negroes, but when at last the doctor told them that they had passed, the change was immediate. All their teeth showed at once and they started to shout and caper about wildly. A flood of light came in through the window at the end, and many streaks shot down through the broken shingles on their naked bodies. It was a weird sight something like a war dance as they expressed their relief in guffaws of laughter and strange antics. It meant semi-starvation for themselves and their families if they were rejected, and untold wealth a dollar a day if they passed. They were all vaccinated with the little triangular spots, their contracts signed, and they went prancing down-stairs to spread the good news among their friends in the square.
Sailing day was a busy one. They began putting the cargo of laborers aboard at sun-up. When I went down about nine to the dock, it seemed that the whole population of darkest Africa was there. I never saw so many negro women in my life. All of them in their gayest Sunday clothes, and all wailing at the top of their voices. Every one of the departing negroes had a mother and two or three sisters and at least one wife all weeping lustily. There was one strapping negro lass with a brilliant yellow bandanna on her head who was something like the cheer-leader at a college football game; she led the wailing.
A number would be called, the negro whose contract corresponded would step out of the crowd. A new wail would go up. Again there was a medical examination especially a search for the recent vaccination marks. For often a husky, healthy negro will pass the first examination and sell his contract. Then by boat loads the men were rowed aboard.

About four o'clock I rowed out and went aboard. Such a mess you never saw what the Germans would call "ein Schweinerei." There were more than seven hundred negroes aboard, each with his bag and baggage. It was not a large boat, and every square inch of deck space was utilized. Some had trunks, but most only bags like that which Dick Whittington carried into London. There was a fair sprinkling of guitars and accordions. But the things which threw the most complication into the turmoil were the steamer chairs. Some people ashore had driven a thriving trade in deck chairs flimsy affairs, a yard-wide length of canvas


hung on uncertain supports of a soft, brittle wood. The chairs took up an immense amount of room, and the majority of "have nots" were jealous of the few who had them. It was almost impossible to walk along the deck without getting mixed up in a steamer chair.

There were more formalities for the laborers to go through. The business reminded me of the way postal clerks handle registered mail. Every negro had a number corresponding to his contract, and the utmost precaution was taken to see that none had been lost and that no one who had not passed the medical examination had smuggled himself on board.

We pulled up anchor about six. All the ship's officers head moved into the saloon; it was the only clean place aboard a sort of white oasis in the black Sahara. For fresh air the only available space was the chart-house deck. There was so much to do in getting things shipshape that none of the officers appeared at dinner. So I ate in solitary grandeur. The cabin was intolerably stuffy, for at each of the twenty-four portholes the round face of a grinning negro cut off what little breeze there was. There was great competition among the negroes for the portholes and the chance to see me eat. As nearly as I could judge the entire seven hundred had their innings. I faced out the first three courses with a certain amount of nonchalance, but with the roast the twenty-four pairs of shining eyes constantly changing got on my nerves. I did scant justice to the
salad and dessert, absolutely neglected the coffee, and, grabbing my writing-pad, sought refuge up on deck. The steward, I suppose, thought I was seasick.


The negroes very rapidly accommodated themselves to their new surroundings. The strangeness of it in some mysterious way stirred up their religious instincts; they took to singing. A very sharp line of cleavage sprang up. The port side of the ship was Church of England, the starboard,
Nonconformist. The sectarians seemed to be in the majority, but were broken up into the Free Baptists, Methodists, etc. The Sons of God would go forth to war on the port side, while something which sounded like a cross between "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and Salvation Army
rag-time was in full blast to starboard.

There was only one song, a secular one, on which they united. The tune ran something like "Tammany," and as near as I could catch the words the chorus ran:

" Fever and ague all day long
At Panama, at Panama,
Wish you were dead before very long
At Panama, at Panama."


Not exactly a cheerful song, but they sang it with great fervor.

...That night we ran into heavy weather, and I have never seen anything messier than the deck in the morning. Seven hundred seasick negroes are not a pretty sight, but there was a certain selfish joy in seeing that this storm had made an end of those steamer chairs. They were all smashed to splinters the moment we began to roll.


"I hope," the captain said at breakfast, "that this keeps up. Seasickness will take the mischief out of them." But his wish was not granted. By noon we had run into a sea like a sheet of corrugated iron, just little ripples, and a metallic look. We were running about eleven degrees north, and it certainly was hot. There was not a breath of wind. The negroes recovered with their habitual quickness, and were in an unusually amiable mood. They turned out willingly to help the crew wash down the decks. I have never seen water evaporate so quickly. One minute the decks were glistening with water, the next they were already dry, within five minutes they were too hot to walk on barefooted.

Of course these negroes were not very comfortable. But they were free! There are many men still living who can remember when slave-ships sailed these very waters. It is hard to imagine what life on a slave-ship must have been. The effort to reconstruct the horrors of those days not so
very long past makes the inconveniences which this cargo of black ivory suffer seem small indeed. Above all, there was no one among them who was not here of his own free will. There was not one of them whose heart was not full of hope this voyage to them all meant opportunity. Think what it must have meant to their forefathers! Nothing which happened to them after they were landed and sold could have approached the agony of the long voyage in irons, thrown pell-mell into the hold of a sailing ship. Not knowing their captors' language, they could not know the fate in store for them. The world does move.

When, in the far future, the history of our times is written, I think that our father's generation will be especially remembered because it abolished the negro slave trade. They invented steam-engines and all manner of machines; they cut down a great many trees and opened up a continent and did other notable things. But their crowning glory was that they made an end of chattel-slavery.

Until these imported negro laborers are handed over to the United States authorities at Colon they are under the paternal care of Great Britain. The conditions under which they have been recruited, the terms of their contracts, have been carefully supervised by English officials. Above all, their health is guarded. Their daily menus and they are quite sumptuous have been ordered by His Majesty's government in London.

Working and Dying on the French Panama Canal Construction Project

Southern Explorations reports: It was exotic. It was exciting. It was lucrative. Young Frenchmen with a rosy view of destinations unknown, those with nothing better to do and those with nothing to lose, all signed on to France's next great adventure, the building of the Panama Canal. Even when word leaked back to France that one in five canal workers was dying, still they kept coming, young energetic Frenchmen, recent engineering graduates and workers, all in pursuit of the dream. Called gallant by their countrymen, the recruits kept arriving, swept away by a heady mix of patriotism, bravado and frontier excitement, presumably believing luck would spare them.

Though no accurate records exist, it is estimated that as many as 22,000 workers perished between 1881 when the project got underway and when it ended in defeat eight years later. Lucky were the few who drowned or died in a machinery accident. Most of the French workers, recruited primarily from the West Indies, succumbed to a much more excruciating fate, yellow fever or malaria.
A team of forty French engineers arrived first. They were joined by a team of about 200 workers from the immediate area, as well as Colombia (then called New Granada), Venezuela and Cuba, who began clearing the mostly rainforest vegetation to make way for the canal. By June, the number of technical personnel and workers had expanded four-fold. By the following year, the work force had doubled. By 1884, a third of the way into what was supposed to be a twelve-year project, the Canal employed a workforce of 19,000.

It didn't take long for new workers to size up the situation. Those who didn't immediately succumb to disease didn't stay long. Among the recruits was French painter Paul Gauguin who arrived with fellow-artist, Charles Laval. For Gauguin, working on the canal was part of a much larger dream, a quick way to finance his transition from the staid stockbroker profession to the uninhibited life of an artist. The two landed in Panama in April of 1887 at the start of the rainy season. Laval derived income through portrait commissions, while Gauguin began his stint as a laborer. He lasted only two weeks, just long enough to earn enough cash to build an art studio on nearby Isla Taboga and make plans for further adventures after his Panama tours were over. By June, the pair was off to their next destination, Martinique.

The punishing heat and humidity of Panama's long rainy seasons, exacerbated by the close living quarters of the workers, provided just the right conditions for annual epidemics of yellow fever and malaria. Six months into the initial season of work, the first wave of yellow fever hit. In 1883, 1,300 died of disease, ten percent of the work force. From then on, some 20% succumbed each year.
Yellow fever kills quickly after an agonizing few days of flu-like symptoms and a brief remission before the symptoms worsen, causing the sufferer to vomit blood before developing heart and central nervous problems prior to death. Malaria has similar symptoms that are milder but more lethal. The rising death toll gave the French canal project the nickname "White Man's Graveyard" (though many more people of color perished) and de Lesseps the moniker, "The Great Undertaker."

To deal with the outbreaks of illness, the French built two hospitals, one in the port city of Colon on the Caribbean side of the isthmus and one at Ancon near the Pacific. For those who survived the ordeal, a fifty-room “retreat” was established built on Isla Taboga where workers could rest and recuperate.

Although some French nationals are buried in the French Cemetery at Paraiso on the Pacific side of the canal, it is mostly the foreign workforce whose final resting place is here. After the opening of the canal, the cemetery was abandoned to make way for housing but has recently been restored. Each white cross represents a thousand men who gave their lives, not for a cause they necessarily embraced, but for a wage higher than they could earn in their native lands.

All five of the Southern Explorations Panama tours visit the Panama Canal. On visits of the capital, some Panama tours include a stop at the French Cemetery, a silent monument to the nameless who changed history. (Source Southern Explorations)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Panama Canal

From Reuters, "Panama Canal's Black Builders Await Due Credit," by Tim Gaynor: Panama City (Reuters) - In the year when the United States is to cede control of the Panama Canal to Panama, the waterway's governing body has named a tugboat for its longest serving and most reliable employee.
Tugboat Cecil F. Haynes on the Panama Canal

But for Cecil Haynes, 86, a soft-spoken Panamanian of West Indian descent, it is more than just a personal tribute. It is long-awaited recognition of the role played by black labor in the canal's history.

"West Indians made a very valuable contribution to the canal," he said, sitting in the offices where he has worked since joining the commission in 1928. "But we never got the credit we deserved."

Between 1904 and the canal's completion on the eve of the First World War, more than 25,000 West Indians heeded U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's call to "make the dirt fly."

As the Dec. 31 transition to Panamanian control looms, Haynes hopes the thousands of black workers who labored to build the canal will finally be honored alongside its white engineers.

Panamanian West Indian Museum

Housed in a one-room former colonial church in Panama City's rundown Calidonia district, the Panamanian West Indian Museum has championed the memory of the canal's black work force since the museum opened in 1981.

"The Americans were known for their engineering skill," said Melva Lowe Goodin, the museum's president. "But it was the West Indians who gave the sweat and the blood."

Black Labor On A White Canal


For the black workers from Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique who made up two-thirds of the canal's labor force, the work was hard, dangerous and indifferently paid.

"My father came here in 1904 to dig the ditch. Back then it was just jungle and mosquitoes," Haynes recalled with a smile.

White employees of the Canal Commission were given comfortable housing, while many black workers lived in railway boxcars or shacks in the forests bordering the work site.

In the early years, malaria and yellow fever were rife and accidents were frequent. Records at the wooden museum show that of 5,600 employees killed by disease and accidents between 1904 and the project's completion 10 years later, 4,500 were black.


Particularly hazardous were the vast excavations at Culebra Cut, a 9-mile(5.6-km)-long navigation channel blasted through the cordillera, the range that divides Panama, with dynamite.

Work crews were vulnerable to landslides as they dug the unstable slopes of the cut and accidents with dynamite were common. An explosion in 1908 killed 23 workers and injured 40.


With tragic irony, an action by the Canal Commission intended to improve public health put workers in even greater danger from landslides and explosions.

"Many workers went deaf as a side effect of the heavy doses of quinine they were required to take to treat malaria," Lowe Goodin said. "They just didn't hear the shouted warnings to get out of the way."

Canal Zone Caste SystemMore than seven decades after drawing his first paycheck, Haynes recalls the two-tier pay system that led to segregation of white and black workers in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone.

"While white workers were paid on the gold roll, in U.S. dollars, we were all paid on the silver roll in local currency," he said.

Silver roll employees had to drink at separate drinking fountains and stand at different lines in the post office under what one observer called the "Canal Zone caste system."
The Canal Zone, a 10-mile(16-km)-wide security strip the length of the waterway, was run under U.S. federal laws, with its own court system and police force, until it reverted to Panamanian control in 1979.

"You couldn't go into gold roll shops," Haynes said. "And after working hours you couldn't be seen in the zone. You would be arrested for loitering or trespassing."

Black workers were classed as "helpers" although they might be qualified in a range of canal-related trades and were paid at half the rate of white co-workers.


American Experience The Panama Canal

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