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Caribbean Migration
Gold or Silver? Jim Crow at the Panama Canal Lesson Plan
The narrative Caribbean Immigration includes a discussion of migration to Central America by Afro-Caribbean workers involved in the construction of the Panama Canal (1904–1914). The dual payroll system, based on salaries in U.S. gold or Panamanian silver, became the mechanism for segregating white and non-white workers (primarily Afro-Caribbean workers from the British West Indies colonies of Jamaica and Barbados, but also African-American U.S. citizens, Chinese, Indians from the subcontinent, and Panamanians). Gold or Silver? Jim Crow at the Panama Canal is a lesson plan that examines the "gold roll-silver roll" system of Jim Crow used in the Canal Zone until the mid-1950s. Students will evaluate its impact on the overall quality of life of workers including pay and benefits, housing, education, recreation and medical treatment.
Grade Levels:High school, grades 9–12
For use with:Caribbean Immigration
Concentration Area:History
Concentration Area:Economics
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • Contributions of African slaves to economic development in the Americas (e.g., contributions of rice cultivation and cattle-raising in South Carolina) and the transmission of African cultural heritage (e.g., through religious practices, dances, and work songs).
  • Background and experiences of immigrants of the late 19th century.
Time required
One to two 50-minute class periods if students read the narrative and conduct research outside of class, and depending on the speed of the oral presentations
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  1. Show students the photograph of the drill gang, Panama.

    1. Ask students to study the photograph for two minutes. Tell them to form an overall impression of the photograph and then examine individual items. Suggest that they divide the photo into quadrants and study each section to see what new details become visible.
    2. Direct students to write three headings: People, Objects, Activities. Ask them to list as many items under each heading as they can.
    3. Ask students to write three things they might infer from the photograph based on what they have observed and listed.
    4. Ask students to write down any questions the photograph raises in their minds.
    5. Ask students to write down where they could find answers about the questions raised by the photograph.
    6. Provide students with the caption, " "At Work on the Canal" " and ask students what difference the caption meant in their ability to interpret the photograph.
  2. Ask students what on-the-job hazards these drill gang workers were facing in terms of accidental injury and disease. If they are unclear about what the workers were doing, explain that they were drilling holes in rock cuts where explosives would be set off. Inform students that the official number of worker deaths during the construction of the Panama Canal (1906–1914) was 5,609. Explosives and repeated deadly avalanches at the Culebra Cut were leading causes of accidental death, but pneumonia was the leading killer overall, followed by other diseases including malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis.
  3. Direct students to read the segment " "Migration to Central America" " in the narrative Caribbean Immigration.

  • Explain that during the unsuccessful French effort to build the canal in Panama (1881–1889), skilled workers were paid in gold and unskilled laborers were paid in silver. Under the U.S. administration, the pay system rapidly evolved into a means of racial segregation. Inform students that all non-white, non-U.S. citizens were paid in Panamanian silver coins and listed on the "silver roll." This included Afro-Caribbean workers from the British West Indies (66 percent of Canal Zone workers came from the colonies of Jamaica and Barbados), Chinese, East Indians (from the subcontinent of India), Panamanians, manual laborers from southern Europe, and some U.S. citizens who were African Americans. White U.S. citizens and European professionals were paid in U.S. gold coin and listed on the "gold roll." Silver roll workers were paid $200-$300 per year, while gold roll annual salaries ranged from $900-$7,000. Workers were segregated at different pay lines, lived in separate housing, ate at separate dining facilities, were treated in segregated hospitals, and shopped at different commissaries. Silver roll workers did not receive housing for their families, unlike gold roll workers, so they lived in local tenements off of unpaved, rutted roads. Unlike the gold bachelor's quarters, housing provided for single silver workers was not screened.
  • Ask students to locate on the world map Panama, Jamaica, Barbados, China, India, Europe, and the United States. If students have individual maps, ask them to mark the locations on their copy of the map; if not, prepare seven sticky notes with one of each of the seven locations and call on students to label the world map with the sticky notes. Discuss with students why they think the canal was such a global undertaking.
  • Explain to students that all workers on the Panama Canal were entitled to go to U.S. Canal Zone hospitals for free treatment, with no limit on the number of visits. In the last year of canal construction (1914), records show that 24,723 employees, nearly half of the work force, went to the hospital at least once. The fight against mosquito-borne diseases, specifically yellow fever and malaria, had reduced the mortality rate of workers spectacularly. During the French era, the death rate was 178 per 1000; in 1914, the death rate for all canal workers averaged 8 per 1000 (compared to the average mortality rate in the United States during the same year of 14 per 1000). Upon closer inspection, however, there were discrepancies in the mortality rates for white and non-white workers. In 1906, white workers died at the rate of 17 per 1000 while Afro-Caribbean workers from the West Indies died at the rate of 59 per 1000; by 1914, the white death rate had dropped to 2 per 100 and that of Afro-Caribbean workers to the rate of 8 per 1000.
  • Ask students to graph the statistical information in the previous paragraph with a vertical death per thousands axis and a horizontal axis and noting French era, U.S. 1914, Canal 1914 total, Canal 1906 Gold, Canal 1906 Silver, Canal 1914 Gold, Canal 1914 Silver. Students may create the graph either on regular block graphing paper or by hand-drafting the graph. The resulting bar graph will resemble the example below:
  • Discuss what role this "silver roll" segregation may have played in the difference in death rates. Evaluate whether the type of job a worker was engaged in may have contributed to the difference in death rates.
  • Divide students into teams to investigate other aspects of the Jim Crow system in the Panama Canal Zone, during and after the construction of the canal, and how it impacted the quality and/or life expectancy of those workers listed on the gold roll and those listed on the silver roll. Categories for the teams will be:

  • Pay and benefits including leave and pension;
  • family support;
  • housing;
  • food and shopping facilities;
  • schools and libraries;
  • recreational facilities.
  • Allow each team time to conduct research and to present their findings in the form of an oral report.


    Assess oral presentations using the 20-point rubric that follows as a basis, multiplying by five to weight the grade or to convert to a letter scale:

    Grading Criteria Excellent(10) Good(9-8) Fair(7-6) NotSatisfactory(5-1) NoWork(0)
    Oral Skills Effective Speaker: tonalvariety, speed, volume, clarity Minor Problems: monotone, soft, mumbling too rapid Numerous speaking problems OR Minimal participation •Communication lacking •Wanders off topic Does not participate
    Historical Research •Locates and uses specific historical arguments and examples

    •Relates examples consistently to topic

    •Contains no factual errors
    •Locates and uses general historical arguments and a few examples

    •Relates some examples to topic

    •Contains no factual errors
    •Locates and uses general information

    •Weakly links facts to topic

    •Contains some factual errors
    •Shows little research

    •Demonstrates limited understanding of arguments, not related to the topic

    •Contains many factual errors
    Does no research

    Related Works

    • The National Archives and Records Administration has many photographs and documents pertaining to the construction and administration of the Panama Canal. Prologue, the Archives' journal, produced a special issue highlighting federal records and African-American history in the summer of 1997. Patrice Brown's examination of Record Group 185, Records of the Panama Canal, provides valuable insight into how U.S. citizens of African origin fared in the gold-silver Jim Crow system. The article can be accessed at:
    • The Library of Congress' American Memory Collection features over seven million online digital documents. A vivid 1920s account from the Cleveland Advocate, Here is Gripping Story of Conditions Which Colored Labor Faces in Panama, provides a contemporary account of labor unrest among West Indian workers operating the Canal at: The Library of Congress also has a number of maps which will help students understand the geographical setting for workers in Panama.
    • The most comprehensive single source for teachers and upper-level students to learn about history of the Panama Canal was written in 1977 by David McCullough, who draws on the statistical information, legislative records, archival photographs, and interviews in The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914.Younger students may wish to look at the April 2001 Cobblestone Magazine issue on the Panama Canal, including the article by Ruth Feldman, Living with Silver and Gold.
    Interdisciplinary Links

    • Photography: Ask students to create an exhibit, " "Separate but Unequal in Panama," " by collecting online images of workers on the Panama Canal and of the facilities provided for silver and gold roll workers. Students should provide captions, locations, and dates for photographs, when available, and create a script for the exhibit. They may present the exhibit in the form of a computer slide-show or as a wall display.
    • Biology/Health:

      • Although over 5,000 workers died in the U.S.-led effort to build the Panama Canal, it is estimated that 78,000 would have died, and the Canal probably would not have been completed, had medical researchers not discovered the link between mosquitoes and disease. Ask students to investigate the history of the fight against yellow fever, which has been largely successful, and malaria, which is ongoing and continues to kill millions world-wide, learning about each illness, mosquito control methods, medications for treatment, preventative vaccines, and the latest research that is being done to combat these and other mosquito-borne illnesses (such as West Nile).
      • The Diaspora of Africans has caused many descendents around the world to suffer from sickle-cell anemia, a debilitating, life-threatening condition. Ask students to investigate sickle-cell anemia, current treatments, and the latest research that is being done to combat this illness.
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