Reframing the Panama Canal

Endorsed by the BHC, LAWCHA, SHFG, and SHGAPE

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Race; Transportation, Travel, and Exploration


More than a hundred years after its completion, the Panama Canal remains crucial not only to global transportation infrastructure, but to historical understandings of sovereignty, race, migration, capitalism, and U.S. empire. The convergence of the current supply chain crisis and the debates over the Build Back Better bill have only emphasized the continued importance of exploring broad histories of infrastructure that take into account the inequities solidified by grand projects of imperial investment and extraction, while also considering the creative activism of the migrant workers who made these projects possible. This panel convenes four scholars who study the history of the Panama Canal from different perspectives: the gendered and racialized domestic labor that shaped its construction, the activist networks of West Indian migrants in Panama in the aftermath of the Canal, the changes wrought by West Indian military participation in World War I, and Panamanians' engagement with expanded US military presence during World War II. These four historians bring transnational approaches to the study of the Panama Canal, centering Black West Indian migrants and Panamanians themselves in new accounts of empire, racial formation, and capitalist expansion. Mixing high diplomacy with bottom-up examinations of soldiers, laborers, domestic servants, and activists, these historians eschew simplistic renderings of U.S. empire in Panama, showing instead the uncertainty and contingency of the imperial encounter. Beyond reframing Canal histories, these works also trace new legacies of Black internationalism, Black feminist thought, anti-imperial, anti-racist, and anti-fascist organizing that help reconceive our responses to ongoing crises of care, labor exploitation, and racial discrimination.

Papers Presented

Democracy's Foot Soldiers: World War I and New Negro Militancy in the Panama Canal Zone

The Panama Canal Zone emerged as one of the most important military recruitment sites for the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) during the First World War. Between 1915 and 1917, over 2,100 West Indian migrants—primarily from Jamaica and Barbados—enlisted in the BWIR while living in Panama. In tandem with the military recruitment campaigns, West Indian women in the Canal Zone spearheaded public fundraising drives that netted thousands of dollars for the Allied war effort. This paper analyzes the grassroots military recruitment and fundraising campaigns on the Isthmus during the war years, exploring why and how West Indians in Panama elected to support the Allied cause. While U.S. and British observers applauded West Indians for being “intensely loyal” to the Allies, West Indian activists and volunteers in the Canal Zone justified their war work as a strategy to secure economic mobility and political rights. They connected the official discourse of imperial patriotism to the language of the New Negro movement, arguing that wartime sacrifices could ultimately lay the groundwork for an “everlasting Negro Democracy” in the Caribbean.

Presented By
Reena N. Goldthree, Princeton University

After the Canal: Zones of Rebellion in a White Supremacist Isthmus

Following the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, tens of thousands of Black men and women who traveled to the isthmus for the construction and related economies remained. In Panama they built robust multi-generational communities, yet faced unrelenting discrimination from Panamanian and U.S. officials. This paper centers the activism of teachers, labor leaders, and community activists in La Boca, a town within the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone. Beginning in 1913 and into the late 1950s, thousands of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians called La Boca home. In particular this paper focuses on advocates who demanded greater educational opportunities, the teaching of Black history, the fight for equal pay for equal work, and anti-racist diplomacy led by Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. Understanding the history of La Boca and the activism that thrived therein, is crucial to decentering narratives of the Canal Zone that privilege the dreams, writings, and aspirations of white U.S. citizens. Living in La Boca involved claiming space at a time of citizenship denial, by both Panamanian and U.S. officials, rampant Jim Crow discrimination, and sovereignty debates that focused on keeping or taking the Canal, while ignoring the Black communities who made Panama’s modernity and the imperial ambitions of the United States possible.

Presented By
Kaysha Corinealdi, Historian of race, empire, and migration in the Americas

Cooperating with the ‘Colossus of the North:’ Sovereignty, Race, Labor and Sex at US Military Bases in World War II Panama

During the Second World War, the United States dramatically expanded its military presence in Panama by leasing 134 defense sites scattered throughout the Republic outside of the existing Canal Zone, which also swelled with greater numbers of US military personnel. Though the Panamanian government agreed to lease the new defense sites in the name of cooperation in hemisphere defense, the entire affair recalled a comment that Panamanian statesman Ricardo Alfaro had made just a couple years earlier to the US Undersecretary of State: “Your cooperation is not at the expense of your sovereignty, and ours is.” My new book, Cooperating with the Colossus, offers a social and political history of US military bases in World War II Latin America, reconstructing the history of basing from the American foreign ministries to the cantinas, courtrooms and brothels surrounding US defense sites. Despite widespread acclaim for Pan-American unity with the Allied cause, defense construction incited local conflicts that belied the Good Neighbor rhetoric of fraternity and sovereign equality. In this panel, my presentation will discuss Panamanian experiences of wartime basing, and survey a few salient areas in which the US defense agenda in Panama became entangled with ongoing social and political struggles on the isthmus, including battles over race and citizenship, gender relations, criminal jurisdiction, and prostitution.

Presented By
Rebecca Herman, UC Berkeley

The Silver Women: How Black Women's Labor Made the Panama Canal

For all its importance, the Panama Canal construction has received comparatively little scholarly attention, and this has focused almost exclusively on technocratic histories or explorations of male migrant workers. My presentation, based on my forthcoming monograph, uses legal cases, administrative correspondence, memoirs, and diplomatic files, to argue that West Indian women proved indispensable to the economic and civic workings of the Panama Canal Zone during the principal decade of construction (1904-1914). West Indian women nourished the contracted black West Indian labor force on the canal, providing food for those underfed by segregated cafeterias, laundering clothes stained 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 and domestic labor of West Indian women. Beyond Panama, West Indian women also sustained the larger circuits of regional labor migration that staffed the construction. They kept homes on the islands, saved remittances, and took care of children left by their kin. Black women’s work of social reproduction thus undergirded the racialized migratory labor system that enabled American imperial expansion in the early twentieth century. These women also developed important strategies of claims-making, community building, and market adaptation that helped transform the modern Caribbean. This presentation not only centers the importance of care and domestic labor to projects of infrastructure, it also explores how Black women disturbed, refused, and skirted structures of imperial racial capitalism.

Presented By
Joan Flores-Villalobos, University of Southern California

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Julie Greene, University of Maryland at College Park
Julie Greene is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal (2009), which won the OAH James A. Rawley Prize. Her interests span labor and working-class history, immigration, the history of empire, and transnational and global approaches to history. With Ira Berlin, Greene is a cofounder and director of the Center for Global Migration Studies at the University of Maryland.

Presenter: Kaysha Corinealdi, Historian of race, empire, and migration in the Americas
Kaysha Corinealdi is an interdisciplinary historian of modern empires, migration, gender, and activism in the Americas. Her forthcoming book, Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making and the Promise of Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2022), examines activist networks created by Afro-Caribbeans in Panama, the U.S. controlled Panama Canal Zone, and New York City during periods of extralegal and state-sanctioned anti-black and anti-foreigner campaigns. Corinealdi’s research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Presenter: Joan Flores-Villalobos, University of Southern California
Joan Flores-Villalobos is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. in African Diaspora History from New York University in 2018. Her work focuses on histories of gender, race, and diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. Her current book project, The Silver Women: How Black Women's Labor Made the Panama Canal, is forthcoming from Penn Press in 2023.

Presenter: Reena N. Goldthree, Princeton University
Reena Goldthree specializes in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. Her research and teaching focus on social movements; political theory; labor and migration; and Caribbean feminisms. She earned her B.A. in History-Sociology (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Columbia University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Duke University. Her current book project, Democracy Shall be no Empty Romance: War and the Politics of Empire in the Greater Caribbean, examines how the crisis of World War I transformed Afro-Caribbeans’ understanding of, and engagements with, the British Empire.

Presenter: Rebecca Herman, UC Berkeley
Rebecca Herman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work explores twentieth-century Latin American social and political history in a global context, probing the intersections between grand narratives and local history. Herman earned her Ph.D. in History at UC Berkeley and her B.A. in Literature, History, and Spanish at Duke University. Her first book, Cooperating with the Colossus: A Social and Political History of US Military Bases in World War II Latin America, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in August 2022.