Non-White Area of Canal Zone

Date: 1908
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph shows the living conditions of non white Panamanians in the U.S. owned Canal Zone (compare this photograph to that of "White part of the Canal Zone"). The subalterns of the Canal Zone, especially the West Indian blacks who had been brought in to build the canal, lived far less luxuriously. The canal managers had used environmental determinism to justify employing blacks because, although they lacked the intelligence and leadership skills of whites, they were considered more fit for work in tropical climes. Environmental determinism also legitimized the unequal treatment of blacks in the Zone throughout most of the twentieth century; since they were "made" for tropical environs, they did not need the extra luxuries provided for "gold" (North American) residents of the Zone, including 25% higher salaries, free housing and healthcare, and annual vacations. The "silver" population of blacks and Panamanians outnumbered whites almost 5 to 1 in the Canal Zone, but the thinly veiled Jim Crow laws of the region kept them subordinate to elite interests. The stark inequality finally began to improve in the 1970s, when the Torrijos-Carter Treaty agreed to return the Zone to Panama by 2000.


Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Frenkel, Stephen. "Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism." In Geographical Review, Vol. 82, no. 2 (Apr., 1992), p. 143-153.

CITATION: Native Houses at Cruces, Canal Zone. 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-75680.