To the editor: The 40-mile-long Panama Canal drastically cut the travel time for ships traveling between the east and west coasts of the American Continent. The canal represents an unprecedented miracle of engineering. Apart from wars, it also represents the largest, most costly single project ever carried out on earth.
While access to the canal is available to ships from any country, the creation of the canal involved considerable discrimination. Financing and engineering difficulties caused severe problems in efforts to build the canal, but the loss of thousands of lives from disease was the main reason for the failures. When Dr. William Crawford Gorgas was finally able to convince people that mosquitoes carried the yellow fever and malaria that was devastating the workers, he was able to implement life saving sanitation efforts. Unfortunately, Black workers, the majority of the canal work force, continued to die in large numbers, at 10 times the rate of white workers in 1906. Housing was not provided to Black workers, many of whom had to live in tents and tenements outside the mosquito controlled zone.
At the high point of construction the American government employed 42,000 people in Panama. The prejudice against the labored employees was disgraceful. White Americans were called "gold employees" and they made much more money than the 33,500 West Indians, mostly from Barbados and Jamaica, who were Black or dark. Similar discrimination was evident in housing, quality of food, medical care, laundry services and vacation privileges. Because of health risks and life inconveniences the turnover was heavy.
It is a pity that Americans who did a remarkable job in engineering and sanitation advances lowered themselves to the cruelty they inflicted on the Black workers, even allowing them to die in the thousands from infectious diseases which white Americans knew well how to control.
Americans today are better in certain ways but we still see frequently cruel, inhuman behaviors. Maybe someday this country will be a true “Christian” one where all Americans treat each other like they want to be treated.
Shaftsbury, Feb. 6