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Jim Crow Laws Lyla "Lou" Womack Dick Shobe

chronicled by
Lyla "Lou" Womack, Dick Shobe

Lyla "Lou" Womack

I was born and raised in the Canal Zone where Jim Crow Laws were strictly enforced. I learned while visiting my cousins in Georgia that a lot of Southerners were employed in Panama so I questioned in my mind if this had some influence upon these laws being set up. Itıs strange that I had never wondered up until now why they existed and am somewhat ashamed that I did not investigate it before now, years later. As a child I remember the name ³Colored Town.² Across from the Dust Bowl which consisted of 12 Family Quarters we were separated from ³them² by several blocks in the town of Gamboa.

We had a black maid named Gwendolyn who would walk across the fields to get to our twelve family dwelling. Occasionally she would bring her daughter Pauline over and we would play together. I recall going over to her house, in fact one time I attended a birthday party in colored town. My mom even made a beautiful dress for me to wear to it. When I got home I was told that I couldnıt go over there any more. I asked why. The response was ³Because they are black.² I thought back at the faces I had seen at the party and they were all black but never thought anything about it up until this point in time at five years of age. I thought to myself and might have even said, ³What difference does that make?

As the years followed, I stayed in my town, went to the Gold Elementary while ³they² went to the Silver Elementary. In the days of the construction of the canal it is told that the white people were paid in gold and the black people paid in silver. So I assume that is how the schools acquired such a labeling.

When I would go to the commissary with my mom to buy groceries, clothes or household goods there was always a partition on the bottom floor of the two story building and once inside you could not see ³them². But on the second floor the partition was only at waist level. I always thought it to be most intriguing to view them so closely since years before I had been separated from "them".

Our clubhouse had a movie theater, cafeteria, soda fountain, library, barber shop, beauty parlor, swimming pool, gym and a bowling alley. It was pretty well self-contained, almost reminding me of a replica of a plantation I viewed at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia. I donıt recall if colored town had a swimming pool but of course I never went there to see if they did or not. When I reached the junior high age my transportation to school eighteen miles away was by train. Many times I would wait anxiously for the trainıs whistle, signifying itıs soon approaching. Everyone would gather on the platform in front of the train station. I would glance to my right and see the black students gathering on their designated side of the train station. As the train would come to a stop we all started boarding the train, us on our side and them on their side, separated by a mailcar.

Over the years I have heard the outcries of the blacks for justice and equality. I read a book on this subject ³Black Like Me². The story of a white man who dyed the pigment of his skin dark and went into the southern states to experience what it would feel like to be in their situation with the Jim Crow Laws in effect. After reading it I discovered that it was exactly like the Canal Zone. When I have told people in the states about the way I was raised it has been shocking to them.


Now I was in the South being confronted with the change that I had heard had taken place. My first exposure was in a market. As I walked in I looked all around and it was like a sea of black people. Was I back in Panama on the other side of the partition in my commissary, that other side that I could not see unless I went upstairs? I must admit that I had not been in the presence of so many of "them" since the Canal Zone and had some peculiar, fearful thoughts going through my mind I walked up to a black sales clerk who was loading shelves trying calmly to keep my composure and asked her where the Gatorade was. She smiled brightly and escorted me to another row. As we walked along I attempted to make conversation with her by telling her I was from Oregon. Just then she startled to bubble, ³Oh I just love Portland, itıs such a wonderful place!² Talk about an icebreaker, a gigantic tranquilizer to my rapidly beating heart. Her words did it. Several nights later I was in the same market. This time she was checking at a cash register. Our eyes met and she gave me a nod along with a great big smile and I in return smiled a great big smile back to her.

After this I was able to cope with a predominantly black population wherever I went in Atlanta and became more interested in the statement that each individual would make by the way they carried themselves or by the way they dressed. I particularly enjoyed seeing a saleslady in a store in Atlanta's Underground . This elegant, black, lady was wearing a beautiful silver choker necklace made of rings. Each and every hair had been braided and tied up into a pony tail which delicately draped down her back. Her attire was a short-sleeved African print dress. I was taken back by her appropriate dress and expressed to her how much I liked the elegance of her attire.

Later on while eating lunch in a restaurant in the Underground I noticed an adorable little black boy wearing a baseball hat with a big red "A" on it. . .Atlanta Braves of course. I jumped up from the table I was sitting at as the mother of this little tyke started to get up from her table and leave. She sensed my interest I believe as I walked directly over to her. I asked her if I could please take a picture of her holding her little boy. I must say that she seemed delighted. I hope it turns out so that I can hang it on my wall of photos that will be titled "Impressions of the South".

Without ever returning to Panama I donıt know if ³Colored Town² still exists in Gamboa. Well I answered my own question. The Panamanians have taken over so maybe Iıll never know unless someone reading this story has been there and knows the answer.

Dick Shobe

I know of no other nation governed as we in the Canal Zone: Socialism and Apartheid.

Socialism when it works serves is citizens well.
If served us so well we call the Zone "paradise." But it never works.
Apartheid can be economically successful, allowing the victims of apartheid to live well.
Such was the case for Silver roll on the Zone.
But no argument can ever justify apartheid.
And when apartheid is economically successful, you will have even more successful without apartheid.
Letıs pretend our government had decided in 1941 to do away with apartheid on the zone. You and I would still look back on our years in Gamboa as paradise. And we would have even more friends with which to share our memories.

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