Over centuries throughout the Diaspora, the contributions of Africans and their descendants have not been acknowledged or documented. One of the technological wonders of this hemisphere and the world was created by the physical labor of young black men during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In this post they are honored and remembered for how they changed our world.
About a quarter century ago, Roman Gabriel Foster, a young film-maker, considered making a documentary that would chronicle the contributions of young Caribbean men to the success of the building of the Panama Canal or the “Culebra Cut” as it was known during its construction
Foster, a Panamanian of Barbadian and Jamaican descent, was a history teacher in the public schools of the United States. He noticed that many of the stories that were written about the Panama canal and its history rarely, or never, mentioned the fact that many young black West Indian men were the back bone of that undertaking.
Growing up in Panama, Foster learned of the history of the West Indians and the canal by listening to the stories that were told by his grandfather and his friends who, at that time, were in their seventies and eighties. He noted that in Path Between the Seas by David McCullough there was little or no mention of the black men who worked and died there.
Foster later worked at a hotel frequented by Alex Hailey who he said finally bluntly told him, “Roman, I am tired of hearing you talk about this dream. Stop talking and do something about it.”
Two weeks later, Foster resigned his position at the hotel and was on a plane to Panama with his tape-recorder, and according to him, “A lot of blank tapes.”
When asked if he was scared. He responded that he was a person who, when he made a decision, did not look back. “You go ahead and whatever happens, you accept it, learn from it, and move on.”
Until its completion in August, 1914, the building of the canal, between the French and American efforts, took more than thirty-four years at a cost of about 40,000 thousand lives. About a third of the 120,000 people who worked there, most young, were Caribbean men. The total cost in dollars was $639,000,000, of which America spent approximately $400,000,000.
According to Foster, he arrived in Panama on a Sunday in 1978. The next day, Monday, he began looking for leads that would connect him with some of those who survived the labor of the Canal. “I found out that on the first of every month,” Foster related, “that the United States Government gave the surviving diggers their little check, and I was given the location where these checks were handed out. So, early Tuesday morning, at 6:00 am, I was there when they began to gather. Since the office opened at 9:00 am I wondered why they were there so early. I was told that it was the only time that they could all sit together and reminisce about the times that they [had] spent in the ‘Cut’.”
These men who had survived some of the harshest working conditions in recent memory, worked nine hours a day, six day weeks at ten cents an hour while their American counterparts made ten times that. They faced bubonic plague, yellow fever, malaria, snake bites, horrendous living conditions, and worst of all, overt racism according to Foster. In their seventies and eighties, these elders were more jocular in their reminiscences than bitter, as they very easily could have been. Many of the white U.S. workers in the Canal Zone were recruited from the South since it was thought that the climate was comparable to that of Panama. Therefore, the same attitude about black people that existed among white people in the U.S. reared its ugly head. It is not that whites did not contract the same diseases as the blacks, but among them there were less fatalities because of the quality of their medical care and living conditions which were much better than those for their black counterparts.
In attempting to tell the stories of the surviving diggers and those who had died from disease, accidents, or old age, Foster encountered many obstacles. His first application for funding was turned down by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In a rejection letter the Endowment allegedly said that the project was not interesting enough, not American enough. The Ford Foundation Study Group was first to donate to his effort. It may have been influenced by the fact that the president of the Foundation, Franklin Thomas, was the grandson of West Indians whose people had spent time in Panama. He was able to relate to the story and supported financing the film. This was followed by PBS who heard about the project and became interested. Two hundred and sixty-four stations donated what would be the bulk of the financing which produced the film. One of the great ironies of this story, is that two of the greatest beneficiaries of the building of the Panama Canal, DuPont and General Electric, were fledgling companies which came to prominence because of their participation in the Culebra Cut yet refused to assist in the film’s financing.
In speaking to Foster about the making of THE DIGGERS one recognizes a dedicated man who understood that there might not be monetary gains to be made from this film, but it was necessary. It was more important to him that the ordinary men who worked under the most trying of conditions, who represented their people with such great respect and valor, be fondly remembered for their fearless participation in what Teddy Roosevelt described as, “One of the great works of the world.”
Today the Panama Canal is under-going, or has recently under-gone, a nearly three hundred billion dollar face-lift which will allow larger vessels to pass through the locks. This renovation will make trade, especially to the U.S., much more lucrative. It is good for business, and good business is good for all; but here is a reminder. In little more than a year and half, in August of 2014, it will be one hundred years since the opening of the Panama Canal. It will be celebrated with great pomp and pageantry. Let us remind the world, as this centennial is celebrated, of the very young men whose hopes and dreams were realized or shattered in the “Culebra Cut.”
A FILM BY ROMAN FOSTER.
Roman G. Foster : Director
Brock Peters : Narration
Mel Williamson: Narration.
Karma Stanley: Camera
Richard Adams: Camera
Vincent Galindez: Camera
Edward Rodriguez: Camera
Mel Williamson: Writer
Roman G. Foster: Producer
Ford Foundation: Funding
Corporation for Public Broadcasting: Funding
WNYCTV Foundation: Funding.
This post submitted by Ken Forde