An Excerpt From The Silver Women in Honor of Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and to mark the occasion, we’re sharing an excerpt from the new book The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal by Joan Flores-Villalobos, out now from Penn Press. The Silver Women is one of many great titles available in our Women’s History Month collection for 40% off this month when you use discount code WHM2023-FM. This excerpt introduces the book’s focus on how the construction of the Panama Canal depended on Black women’s everyday labor of social reproduction.

April 24, 1907, must have been a hot, muggy day in Empire, a busy industrial town near the train tracks of the Panama Railroad. Empire was the headquarters of the central division of the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), the administrative body that oversaw the construction of the Panama Canal. Empire was always a hotbed of activity, home to engineers, steam shovels, and foreign workers digging the deepest point on the Canal, the Culebra Cut. That day, Jane Hall, a Jamaican woman who owned a boarding house, walked out of the U.S. District Court of the Canal Zone after winning a civil case against one of her tenants. Hall alleged that her tenant had vacated his rooms without proper notice and had not paid three months’ rent at the agreed price of twelve dollars Panama silver a month. After a lengthy case and appeal, the court ruled in her favor and awarded her the equivalent amount, nine dollars along with court fees, in United States gold.

Hall’s payout was notable because, within the U.S. territory of the Canal Zone, West Indians rarely received pay in gold coin. The payroll system unequally divided the wages and benefits of the official Canal workforce. Skilled workers, almost entirely white Americans, were placed on the “Gold Roll” and were paid higher salaries than for equivalent jobs in the United States. They received their wages in gold American dollars. Meanwhile, the more than 150,000 migrant West Indian men who made up the majority of the “unskilled” workforce were placed on the “Silver Roll,” only eligible for much lower pay rates in local coin, usually Colombian silver pesos. Officials, employees, and residents alike came to understand these categories as racialized—Gold as white, Silver as Black—even beyond the payroll. As all ICC services and facilities were designated for either Gold or Silver Roll personnel, the unique pay structure effectively extended racial segregation throughout the Canal Zone.

Into this arrangement came West Indian women like Jane Hall, who were for the most part not official employees of the Canal Commission. As Black women, they inevitably had to deal with the racialized labor scheme and spatial segregation that defined the Canal Zone, but as uncontracted workers, they did not have to function strictly within the roll system. Jane Hall owned her own independent businesses—three boarding houses in Culebra that sheltered Silver workers who could not acquire decent housing from the ICC. She charged rent in silver because it was what workers had, but sometimes paid in gold for services and, as in her civil case, sued to receive back rent in gold. Other West Indian women similarly evaded the binaries of the roll system, moving across white American “Gold” spaces in their work as domestic servants, higglers (market women), and laundresses, and demanding gold as payment from their clients. West Indian women like Jane Hall played a crucial, double-edged role in the Canal construction. On the one hand, they built a provisioning economy that fed, housed, and cared for workers, in effect subsidizing the construction effort and its racial calculus. But, working outside the umbrella of the ICC, they also found ways to skirt, and at times challenge, the legal, moral, and economic parameters imperial authorities sought to impose on this migrant workforce—to function beyond the boundaries of silver and gold.

As historians since the 1980s have firmly established, the Panama Canal was realized as much through the exploitation of a racialized class of workers as it was by American ingenuity. What is less visible, and less understood, is the project’s dependence on the domestic and care labor of West Indian “Silver women.” West Indian women sustained Silver Roll workers, providing food for those underfed by segregated Canal Zone cafeterias, laundering clothes daily for those who worked in dusty construction sites, and fostering links with legal and commercial institutions in their newfound homes on Panamanian territory. They were equally central to the survival of white Americans, who in the early construction years depended on the provisions of West Indian market women, as they had scant access to fresh foods from the commissary and lacked knowledge of local products. West Indian women took care of white American children and cleaned white American homes, physically maintaining the image of an orderly domestic sphere. In short, West Indian women’s labor made the United States’ imperial project possible.

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