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Anesta Samuel

Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks

August 16, 1988

Call number: 1989.004.10

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SAMUEL: I grew up on the Canal Zone. I was born in the Republic of Panama, Guachapali, but I grew up in a little town called Red Tank. That's on Canal Zone. I went to school in Red Tank, public school. That's the only school we had. We only went as far as the eighth grade. Usually, we would be about twelve or thirteen by the time we got finished with eighth grade, and that was the extent of the education. Some families, if they were a little bit more far-thinking or thinking ahead, would send the kids off to a private school in 1:00the evenings. Usually that was for commercial subjects. Most of us took typing and shorthand or some of them went to tailoring or shoemaking or something like that. Parents, again, who were maybe a little better educated, would send the kids into the Republic to Spanish schools.

MARKS: The private schools were in the Zone, also in the Canal Zone?

SAMUEL: These were just in the homes. People that had classes in the home, but not an established school per se. That was all we had.

But for some reason, most of us wanted a little more. And the fellows would send off for these courses by correspondence. Many of us took from the American schools in the United States--some place in the United States. I don't remember 2:00where. Most of the fellows--few good, but most boys took these courses. And we just existed, being happy. Everything that we had, there was a gold section and silver section. The gold; White folks from the United States who came down to work on the Canal lived on the gold section. Black folks lived on the silver. You had your schools in that section, the commissary in that section. But everything else, we had to go into the White sections; like the post office, the 3:00dispensary, the hospital.

MARKS: Not all the services were in both sections?


MARKS: Some of them were only in the gold?

SAMUEL: Only the gold. When you went into those sections there were gold and silver--In the post office, we had two lines: gold line, silver line.

MARKS: Like the American South, like segregation.

SAMUEL: Yes, like it was in the South. You had nothing else to do after eighth grade. You remained a good little girl or a good little boy. Then you marry somebody in the neighborhood and you settle down to--It's the same type of life if this is what you wanted.

MARKS: Your parents had come to work in the--

SAMUEL: My father came to work on the Canal. He came, he came in 1908.

MARKS: The Americans had recruited on some of the islands, like in the Caribbean, on Montserrat, where he came from?


MARKS: They sent to bring the people over?


SAMUEL: Yes, came over and then-- My mother came over in 1912, and they got married in 1913. They had twelve children. Twelve. Eight of us survive. My father had very little education. I think he only went as far as the third grade. And my mother taught school in her home before she came to Panama. But in Panama, she had never worked. Most women --all women, in fact--stayed home unless your husband died or something and you had to go and work in quarters, as that was called; work for a White family. But not too many women did that. The 5:00home, the families remained intact. And then, again, you could only live on the Canal Zone as a family if you were married. You had to be married.

MARKS: So they were very stable--

SAMUEL: Yes. If, if the man died, then his family had no way of keeping their quarters, as that was called--the homes were called--quarters. Then she would have to move out into the Republic of Panama, into the city, with her family. So the--Everything revolved around the family.

MARKS: There were towns that were mostly West Indian in the Zone?

SAMUEL: All West Indian.

MARKS: They were special--

SAMUEL: Yes, all West Indian. As long as you were Black, you lived together. Of course, there were different classes, as usual. Jamaicans felt they were from 6:00the largest West Indian island. This made them feel a little more superior to the Barbadians. The Barbadians; there were large numbers of Barbadians, but the island itself is smaller than Jamaica. So the Jamaicans were--This was my observation. I don't think this is something that you could record as history. But most people would tell you this is the way it was. And when from a smaller place like my parents--You could number the families that were there from, from Montserrat. Maybe there were thirty families; less than a hundred, I'm sure, from Montserrat. People tend to keep together.


Well, with a girl, it really was an interesting life. For every girl had to learn to sew. You had to learn to sew. You had to be able to make your own clothes and you learned to cook--preparing you for being a wife. That was all. Nothing else was there for us. Some of us took off from there, whether it was sewing --You became a very good dressmaker. Fred Wason's mother was the leading dressmaker in the town. Every little girl, she taught to sew and made your bridal gown, and things like that.

Then, after marriage, we-- Well, in my case, I wanted to be a beautician and I 8:00wanted to be a business person. I didn't know how I was going to be, but-- We used to read a lot of magazines: Modern Romance, True Story magazine.

MARKS: All the American stuff was coming through to Panama.

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. McCall's and--

MARKS: Good Housekeeping, all those.

SAMUEL: Yes. And naturally, "I would like to be like this."

We moved from Red Tank after graduation, after I graduated from school. We moved to La Boca, this was the largest town of Black families. In La Boca, La Boca was a more sophisticated town. In La Boca, my mother was able to accumulate enough 9:00money for me to learn hairdressing. I went back to Red Tank to beauty school. A lady by the name of Ivy Williams, she had a beauty shop there, and I worked at it, graduated from school, and went on to have my own little beauty shop in the house. But I--at the clubhouse.

We had a clubhouse. That was the only recreation center. We had movies in this place, a restaurant, and they had little shops downstairs of the clubhouse, like a barber shop, a tailor shop, a shoemaker shop.

MARKS: It's like a little shopping center. It had everything


SAMUEL: Like today you would call a "mall," but it was a one-building mall with everything in it. I looked and I said, "I would like to have a beauty shop in that building." That was unheard of because nobody had a beauty shop in a building like that. I told my father and we applied. I couldn't sign the lease because I was, I think, seventeen. My father signed the lease and I opened this beauty shop, 1936; December, 1936. I opened the beauty shop and it took off like lightning. I got married in 1937--a year from the date of opening the beauty shop.


MARKS: How many--Did you end up employing other people in the shop?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes, what I did, I taught other girls. Then they--We had booths. It really did very, very well.

Well, by this time, because we were more sophisticated, people were pushing and fighting for other things. Young people were sitting back and saying, "Well, we are not going to be like our parents that just sit and wait on a job on the Canal Zone." I resolved as a youngster that I would never work for the Panama Canal Government.

MARKS: Because of the discriminatory--

SAMUEL: Yes. I didn't know how else I was going to live, but I resolved that I would never work there. I have three other sisters. They all worked for it, but I never worked--


MARKS: I think somebody told me that there were two, two wage structures for silver and gold--

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. My father's salary, with all of those children was--The most he made until 1935 was fifty-five dollars a month. Fifty-five dollars is a lot of money--with all of those children. Two rooms, two rooms, no matter how many children. A bedroom, a living room.

MARKS: They provided--It wasn't free housing, was it? Or it was a nominal rent?

SAMUEL: Nominal. $5.35 was the rent, which was taken from there.

MARKS: They deducted it?

SAMUEL: Deducted, deducted. Rent was deducted. I didn't like that either. I didn't like the idea of not being able to pay rent and select where I would want 13:00to live.

MARKS: Because they had a company town. They basically controlled the whole--You bought food from them and the whole thing was controlled through--

SAMUEL: Everything. Exactly. That's the way it was. A lot of us resolved that we wanted to get away from it; we wanted to get out of that. We didn't know how we were going to get out, but we wanted to break away.

I can't remember how, how we started, but it started a normal school on the Canal Zone for a type of secondary education or for training teachers--a normal school. Several people were selected for this school. When they came, my parents asked her to allow me to take the test. I already felt I wanted to do my own, 14:00have my own business. So I went ahead with that. The normal school was right near the clubhouse. Many of the youngsters took off on that. Today--All of them today are in this country and are doctors, lawyers, teachers. All did well.

MARKS: For Panamanian West Indians, it would be more logical to come here than to go into Republic of Panama, right?


MARKS: People didn't think of going to the Republic of Panama.

SAMUEL: No, because of the language, for one thing. It was--

MARKS: And there was also discrimination?

SAMUEL: Yes, going into the schools. You had trouble getting into the schools, leaving the Canal Zone to go into Panama.

MARKS: Because of language, people would just not go into--

SAMUEL: Yes. So people sent their children here.


My husband, he was very, very ambitious. He had very little, but he was ambitious. He learned to-- During this same period, when each boy or girl had to learn, he learned to play the tenor sax and clarinet. So aside from his job at a commissary daily--his salary, too, was fifty-five dollars a month when we got married--he played music in a cabaret at night in Panama City. In between playing, he would be doing this American school course by correspondence. Many of the other fellows--

MARKS: Was he playing jazz at the time?

SAMUEL: Yes, jazz, yes, yes.

MARKS: It was American music, American jazz, like swing?


SAMUEL: Yes, exactly. All of the American music. That's what he played.

Later on, I went on to acquire another beauty shop and another beauty school. We were doing extremely well.

MARKS: --In Red Tank. This is all in Red Tank?

SAMUEL: For Panama at the time. He was making as much money --At one point, he left the commissary and went to work for the PX. It was during the war. The salary then was two hundred dollars a month, which was like ten thousand dollars. So we went on to buy a home in the city, in Panama. We purchased a home there and made a beauty shop downstairs and he was working. So we were really doing all right and settled down. We had one child and we didn't plan to have anymore. This is what we wanted to do.


But along the way-- He had a very good friend, a best friend, who had come up here during the war. He went to Howard University. He took a test on the Canal Zone that enabled him to come up here without a high school education, just this course. He took a test and went to Howard Medical School. This was motivation for my husband. His friend was here, so he was going to--so along the way-- All of this doesn't really matter to history. But along the way, he took a vacation. The war was over. We bought this home, set it up. Everything you had, you sent here to the States, as we called it, for your refrigerator, your hot water tanks, and everything like that. Everything that you've seen in American homes in these magazines.


And he took a vacation, his first vacation, he took. "Monday morning, now we are going to-- we'll move Saturday and get set up." A little jeep drove up and a fellow came out, handed him a letter. Just like that, the letter said, "Your services are no longer required. You are terminated."

MARKS: No warning, just--?

SAMUEL: No warning, end of that. So I thought it was the end of the world but, actually, it was the beginning. He said to me, "Well, Anesta, I always wanted to go to the States, but we were so settled here. I mean, everything was going so well that I wasn't thinking about it anymore." He said, "Well, I'm taking off."


I said, "How could you? We just bought the house. What will we be?"

He said, "Sell the house." We sell the house. I had an uncle here. I had never seen him. 'Cause he was from the West Indies. He came from Montserrat here, instead of-- Some people came here: some went to Cuba: some went to Panama. Well, this uncle came here. My mother wrote to him, telling him that my husband would like to come. He sent the papers. Somebody had to sponsor you from here.

I said, "I'm not going. I'm not leaving my family to come to a strange place."

So we arranged that he would come here; he would go to school. He wanted to be a dentist. Along the way, he had taken a course, a correspondent. Mechanical Dentistry, they called it. He had taken this course. He used to do a little of 20:00that on the side, so he wanted to be a dentist. He was coming here to be a dentist. The arrangement was he would come and not work. He'd go to school. I would remain at home with the beauty shop and help him here. Summertime, vacation time, he would come home until he was finished. He would come back.

My father was a very wise man with a little education, but very, very wise. He said to me, "Oh, no. That's not practical. When he comes back, you could only serve the drinks to his company. If he goes, you go. If you are not going, then he doesn't go."


I wouldn't, wouldn't hear of it. So my mother went to her minister. He came up to see me and he talked to me. He told me the same thing. He said, "You wouldn't be on the same level with your husband when he acquires an education."

MARKS: Your father sort of saw ahead and saw what was going to develop.

SAMUEL: So he came on and left me to sell the house. Now, I knew very little Spanish to do business, but enough, enough to do it. In six months, the house was sold and I came up and joined him. He lived here in Brooklyn on Dean Street with my aunt and uncle. We joined them. I joined them there. He came up in February of 1950. I came in August. This was really the beginning of a whole 22:00line of almost two hundred people. You know that I had a new life because of this round, seemingly bad move when he lost his job.

MARKS: It was a momentous event that set off all kinds of other--

SAMUEL: So my husband-- Exactly. My uncle's wife said, "Look, you have this money. If you keep it, it's going to leave you. You're living here with me, let us look for a house." So she went with me. She wouldn't take any rent from us, no money for food--nothing she took from us. My husband was here six months. And when I came, she gave us a larger room. She had a rooming house at the time. A larger room, and I couldn't understand this way of life, but we lived with her. 23:00She went with me and looked for a house. We looked and looked and looked. I didn't understand what I was looking for because-- But she had the experience because she had about four houses of her own.

But everybody told us, "Live on the other side of Brooklyn. Don't live on this side of Brooklyn."

MARKS: "This side," meaning Dean Street, downtown?

SAMUEL: Dean Street. Well, Fulton. Not to live on this side of Fulton, the other side. This was because, well, everybody was coming up from the South and moving in. They had all of these rooming houses. The other side had family houses, so you didn't have as many people. But that wasn't God's plan for us because the house that we saw on that side that we loved and we wanted and put a binder, 24:00when we went back, they gave us back the money and gave it to somebody else. And this house; we came to this house, and this was the side that we shouldn't live, but it was the house that was completely furnished. We had given away all the furniture and sold some of it.

MARKS: So you had nothing.

SAMUEL: This house had everything, even food in the refrigerator. Drapes, curtains.

MARKS: Ready to move in.

SAMUEL: Ready to move in. And tenants because the Pratt students used to room. It was a rooming house. But he lady--it was an Italian family--lived downstairs. She said she had been seeing people and seeing people, but she--her house to her had such meaning that she didn't want to just sell it to anybody. For some reason, she took a liking to us and we got the house with everything in it. The students lived there for two years after we took the place.


The arrangement, my husband--I didn't tell you this. When he came, all he had was an eighth grade education like the rest of us. He went to Rhodes High School in the daytime. My aunt was a nurse, so she got him a job at the Goldwater Hospital on Welfare Island. He worked evenings and went to school in the daytime. In two years, he received his high school diploma and went on to Brooklyn College.

Now when we bought the house, we bought it with the understanding that I would have a beauty shop downstairs and we'd live upstairs. But they wouldn't give us 26:00a license because this area was residential. It wasn't zoned for that.

MARKS: Wasn't zoned. You had come with some substantial money from Panama, right?

SAMUEL: Yes, from selling the house.

MARKS: From selling the--you were able to. You were lucky to--

SAMUEL: Yes. We were able to. And he went on--What was I saying? We got the house. Oh, they wouldn't allow us to have the beauty shop. But we agreed that I would work still in a beauty shop, which I did. I went back to school here and got my license. I took the State board and everything, and got the license, and I went on to work in the beauty shop and he went on to Brooklyn College.


When he left Rhodes High School, he had a ninety average, so he was able to get into Brooklyn College free. He went on to Brooklyn College at night and worked in the daytime.

In the meanwhile, we sent for my sister and her husband and my son. Our son was twelve years old.

MARKS: He had been staying with [inaudible]-- Your son had been staying with your sister?

SAMUEL: Huh? Yes, with my parents. So they came. The year after that, we sent for two nieces. The year after, another niece and a nephew. Now I'm saying that that move that was a seemingly bad move turned out to be a good move because all 28:00of these people: My sister and her husband, she came, finished with education, she went to practical nursing school. Her husband went to radio/TV repair. That's what he's doing today. She became a practical nurse. My son, well, he's the only one who didn't really-- He wasn't college material then, but he's a good citizen. My one niece is a director of nurses. She came here with her Spanish background. They went to Spanish elementary schools. They went to high school here--at Prospect Heights High School. That niece is a nurse and she's a director of nurses at Haim Solomon Nursing Home.


A niece who came also, she was twelve when she came. She was always because her [unintelligible] baby and she went on to-- She is a bilingual coordinator in the public schools for the Board of Ed. [inaudible] Came here not knowing English. Spanish background and she went on--

The younger girl--she works in social services for the Department of Health, right down here at Fort Greene.

The nephew, he works at an insurance company, a salary of a hundred and twenty-five thousand a year. He came when, when he was a [unintelligible]


Then they had a high school on the Canal Zone, a two-year high school.

MARKS: And he progressed beyond that--

SAMUEL: He came up. All of those people who came out, we sponsored out of this bad move, that he was thrown out. And here in America, people who left home--We didn't come here in search of a better way of life financially because we were, in our way of life, kind of settled financially.

MARKS: So you had already made it in Panama.

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. When I came here, I was thirty-three and my husband was thirty-five. We could have settled. We go home and old friends who didn't come out, they're in the same place, doing all right financially, but not 31:00educationally. We wanted a better way of life educationally. And here, we were able to get it. My husband got it free of charge. He got his--He had to pay for the high school at Rhodes. The Bachelor's he got free. Then the Sputnik came up, and they were giving everybody who wanted a degree, and he got his Master's at Brooklyn College.

Then, along the way, while he was at Brooklyn College, I was working, carrying the family. I was working at a beauty shop, doing very, very well. But everybody who came from Panama came to that beauty shop.

MARKS: Where was that?

SAMUEL: Jefferson 175 Jefferson, near Nostrand. The Vanity Beauty Shop was the name--

MARKS: By this time, there were more Panamanians coming up, right? It was 32:00starting to grow up?

SAMUEL: --of it. Oh, yes. The Panamanians were starting to come, to come.

MARKS: So, '50s. Like in the mid-'50s?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. Every young, ambitious person--although, some of them were midway in life financially, but looking for a better way.

MARKS: And Brooklyn was the place to come to.

SAMUEL: Brooklyn. They came here. So along the way, while working now, he was working hard to finish at Brooklyn to go on to dental school. Because he too was hoping to go to Howard. Out of nowhere, after sixteen years--our son was sixteen years old I became pregnant. Not planned, not hoping to have any more children. When he came home and he heard that I was pregnant, he never smiled again. [laughter] He never smiled until the baby-- Everything went down the drain.


So he said his next best love was teaching. He couldn't go away again, teaching, so he went on after he got his Bachelor's, his Master's, and then he went into supervision. It took a year or whatever it was. Brooklyn College, free also.

In the meanwhile, our three children, four children were in school because we had taken these nieces now as our, our full responsibility. And one child was four. And when this baby came, it was five.

Anyhow, my home was headquarters for everybody who came. One of the things I 34:00said when I was leaving home, "I would like to buy a big home with enough space for all of my relatives who would like to come and children of my friends." Well, they started to come. The war was on; it was the Korean War.

MARKS: The early '50s, '51 or something like that?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. The kids were coming up. Some came up to go to the--go in service and some came to go to school.

In the summertime, the kids used to come up. Everybody would come here. I was in the kitchen. They would eat. There was always, always food for everybody.

MARKS: You were cooking always for a whole, a small--

SAMUEL: Yes. I was in the kitchen one evening, washing dishes. I was standing at 35:00the sink. The sink was on the other side of the kitchen. I heard fellows talking and they were laughing, making fun of it. But one of the things they were saying-- They used to buy a lot of salted peanuts. They would buy these peanuts and eat up a lot because it made them drink water when they couldn't get food. And that really touched me. I said, "Gee, here we are with enough to eat and so, not planning to go back home in a hurry. And these kids are here, trying education with nothing to eat." So that is when I decided we had to do something to help others. I could give some of them a place to live when they came up in the summer, looking for work. Sometimes they got a job, sometimes they didn't. 36:00If they got it, okay, fine. But they ate just the same, and I would take the money from them, put it aside for when they were ready to go home. They didn't have to pay rent, they didn't have to buy food.

So I called up a friend of mine, Joyce Gumbs. She's sick now. I called her and I told her, "What do you think we could do to help these people?" She was a dressmaker, but she was in the factories and making a lot of money.

She said, "How about us getting together and doing some sewing or crochet or something?"

So I called some other girls, got together nine of us. We got together and we started this crocheting and selling little things. But that was too slow. That was slow money. We decided to call ourselves--The first name we had was "Las Servidoras."


MARKS: Were these friends from Panama, from back home?

SAMUEL: All from Panama.

MARKS: Because they were friends from back in the old days.

SAMUEL: Yes. Some of them were here a little before I came. Joyce Gumbs was here before I came. Nella Golin, she was the first president. Edna Granger, Edith Curtin, Rosa Benam, Naomi Straker, myself, Catherine Grace. I think that's nine.

We decided that was a little too slow, so we started to cook dinners on Saturday and take orders. The men; husbands or boyfriends or members of the club would go 38:00around and deliver these dinners--mainly to beauty shop, because on Saturday, that was big business. We made a little money that way.

And then, we decided to try a dance, give a dance. We gave our first dance at Sonya Ballroom on Bedford Avenue. We made five hundred dollars. That five hundred dollars was a lot of money in those days.

In the house, we had two youngsters from Panama, Robert Reed and Ecksley Reed. They roomed here because they went to N.Y.U. and graduated from N.Y.U. Bobby went on to medical school. He was in medical school. His father died the day he 39:00was taking his final exam. His father died. Somebody had to go back home, one of the two. Amongst themselves, they decided that the older brother would go back home and work. They gave him his father's job and help, this one here. So when he was there last year--We used to keep in touch. He wrote, telling me that things were very, very bad and his mother was short of the money, and he might have to work and then go back and finish. I said, "No. Hooray, we have five hundred dollars." So he was the first recipient of our scholarship. We sent him the five hundred dollars. Today, he is a urologist at this hospital in--I can't 40:00recall the name of the hospital in the Bronx now, yes. He's the head of the department, oh my goodness. My sister was in that hospital last year. I should remember it. Anyhow, he was the first recipient, and we took off from there. We just gave concerts and raffles and "waistline" parties, all kinds of things.

Everybody was coming from Panama then. So anything you gave, it was a success [inaudible].

MARKS: This was about the mid-'50s, thereabouts? We're moving into the--

SAMUEL: Yes. This was '53. The club was organized in '53, yes; April of '53. And 41:00by '58, is when we made our five hundred dollars--Bobby Reed. And he, too, he used to be a jockey in Panama, the leading jockey. He would win every race. But his father was a smart man, too. He saved all of that money and so the two boys were able to come here to N.Y.U. But they were from the Spanish-speaking side. They didn't know too much English. They made very good--educationally, although not too much with English. Everything else from that was just glory. The club 42:00really--Today we have thirty-eight members, I think. We cannot--Our children cannot get anything from the club.

MARKS: That's a rule that you made, that you'd exclude your children?

SAMUEL: Yes, our children can't. But fortunately, they were all--everybody who had children, they were all able to go on and do very well. We just had a young fellow to graduate from--he's going to medical school also. He was born since the club. My daughter, too, was born since the club. She was the first baby. She went on too, she majored in public administration. She's in Harrisburg. She 43:00works for the State of Pennsylvania, and does very, very well.

MARKS: You give yearly dances, right? You give cotillions?

SAMUEL: Our cotillion came up in '63. We gave the first cotillion. Since that, that is a major source of income--from the cotillion. We give it every other year.

MARKS: In Brooklyn or Manhattan or some big hotel?

SAMUEL: In Manhattan, yeah. Last September, it was at the Marriot. We used to go to the Waldorf in the beginning, and then we had a little problem with the Waldorf. We went to the Americana. Last year for the first time, we prefer the 44:00Marriot. [inaudible] and we give. Sometimes, we have as many as twenty-one, twenty-two students. We give whatever is raised, whatever we make for the year. We have a scholarship committee which consists of five members and four non-members, but all Panamanians. We used to give scholarships only to Panamanians in the beginning. But we realized, well, by that time, we didn't have to just depend on our own little group. We said, well, everybody was helping us to raise this money, so we opened it, opened it to--We get 45:00applications from all over. But we can only--Now we only give a maximum of a thousand dollars per student. Before, we gave four years, whatever it was each year.

MARKS: Covered it totally?

SAMUEL: Yes. But then, we might only have two or three students. But when money became easy to get for scholarships in the '70s, the '60s and '70s--

MARKS: The student loans and all that.

SAMUEL: Yes. We started to give--Because some kids would only need money for room and board or some would need for books or [inaudible]. So we gave them a thousand each, maximum. This year, we only had about fifteen or sixteen students last year. I don't know how many we'll have this term.


But the cotillion is a real elegant affair; very, very nice. People look forward to it. For instance, two weeks ago, I had a call from a lady in Massachusetts. She wanted to know about the cotillion. She was a debutante and she would like her daughter to be exposed to the same thing. Her daughter is seventeen.

MARKS: So people would come out, girls would come out in these?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. So she wanted to know how, in order to go about getting her daughter in that. She will be a deb next year.

MARKS: People keep in touch even though they've moved into other states and other--?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes. Yes, and we keep-- I think we must have had just about every 47:00Panamanian that ever stepped into--especially New York area, on our mailing list.

MARKS: What kind of--if you don't mind--kind of music would you have at the cotillions? Would they be dance bands or would you have Panamanian kinds of things?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes. Sometimes we have two orchestras--one that would only do the minuet and waltz for the actual presentation. And then after the presentation, there's a dance for everybody. We would have one of the regular bands. A couple of years, we had Alonso Wilson.

MARKS: People's tastes have been almost a little bit Latinized musically.


MARKS: The dancing would be sort of like--

SAMUEL: Yes, a mixture.

MARKS: Alonso's music seems very unique to me--the combination of West Indian and Latin. But that seems to have been like the big music in the '50s, right--that kind of style?


MARKS: The Windsor, what he invented.


SAMUEL: There's another fellow here with a band--Frank Anderson. [Interview interrupted.]

MARKS: I notice that you were active in the Panamanian-West Indian Heritage Association.


MARKS: What aspect--Was this more of a political group or was it for cultural preservation?

SAMUEL: Yes, cultural preservation.

MARKS: What aspects of Panamanian culture are you trying to preserve here in Brooklyn? What are your activities?

SAMUEL: West Indian. We are trying to preserve the West Indian heritage. Two years ago, we had "Women of Courage." In this, we singled out women in the community who were teachers, leaders in their own way. We had quite an affair at 49:00Borough of Manhattan Community College. Relatives of these people came in from all over. We paid tribute to them--women like Mrs. Wayson, Fred Wayson's mother. She was one of the--There were about twenty. Teachers, we have many of--What do you call them? People who just had classrooms in their basement.

MARKS: I heard about that, I think, from Carlos Russell. Under the house.

SAMUEL: The cellar, we call it. Yes. The houses would be on those--


MARKS: [inaudible]


MARKS: So there was really a tradition in the West Indian community of educating the young.

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: Did The Dedicators have some kind of precedent, let's say, in the West Indian community of this kind of sponsorship? Didn't they have something that's part of West Indian culture to sponsor students? Does it come out of a religious background or something in West Indian culture that you're continuing? Do you know what I mean?

SAMUEL: Yes. We are trying to continue there. Religious is a part of it--a very big part of it. But we, we are trying.

MARKS: I'm curious about West Indian culture, I mean, here because I saw the cotillion, the Quadrille Group, and I was amazed that here was a group that has preserved something that must go back to the nineteenth century.


MARKS: They were doing Caledonias. Would you ever feature them? Do you make a 51:00point of featuring them at any of your dances? Or do you sponsor them in any kind of performance or anything like that?

SAMUEL: Well, in cotillion, that's a part of it--the presentation, that whole part of our culture.

MARKS: That would include some of the old dances, like Lancers and Caledonias?

SAMUEL: Yes, exactly.

MARKS: So this really came, this came to Panama through, let's say, Barbados and Jamaica probably, and maybe some of the other islands.

SAMUEL: The West Indian islands.

MARKS: In Panama, would there be--You mentioned the social club. West Indians would actually continue these dances?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes.

MARKS: This would be a formal event?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes. This is what we came up in. We came up into this.

MARKS: When you were young, you would do the Quadrilles and other--

SAMUEL: Yes. Even today, there are groups of people, right here in Brooklyn. There's a club of Quadrilles and--


MARKS: You mean a social club, where people get together and do things?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. And at different affairs, people would just hire them to perform in it and expose the kids to this kind of thing.

MARKS: I was going to ask you about the younger generation. What direction are they moving? Are there kids who, who are interested in continuing this? Are there those who are sort of passing into--

SAMUEL: No, not interested at all. [laughter] This is why we have the Panamanian-West Indian Heritage Association. They don't know it. They don't know. Especially children that were born here. This is really the reason why we got together, to see if we could pull it back together and put it more in front 53:00of them, so they would carry it on.

MARKS: Let's say, when they pass out of that, what do they pass into? Do they, do some of them pass into Hispanic culture?


MARKS: Do some of them go into American culture?

SAMUEL: Yes. [unintelligible] Spanish. Oh my, yes.

MARKS: So they really identify, even if they have West Indian parents, identify as--

SAMUEL: As Hispanics.

MARKS: --Hispanics. Have you ever heard of people changing their names into--?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes, yes.

MARKS: I saw Mr. Applewhite, who calls himself "Manzanablanca."

SAMUEL: Yes, that's right. [laughter] Oh, yes. A lot of that.

MARKS: So are more passing into Hispanics, than into the American--?

SAMUEL: Hispanics, yeah. Yes.

MARKS: They are?


MARKS: So they speak Spanish?

SAMUEL: We were more into the American culture or whatnot--not these children. In Panama, none at all. This is what mainly we are concerned about, with more in 54:00Panama than here.

MARKS: I see. In Panama itself, that line is really dissolving between West Indian--

SAMUEL: It's a dying culture.

MARKS: And West Indian? So people--

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: There's been like a steady stream of movement from the Zone into Panama, to the Republic?

SAMUEL: Exactly, exactly.

MARKS: And people even intermarry? Let's say [unintelligible]. People maintain, in other--

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: --words. Maybe in the beginning, they were bilingual. They were learning Spanish. But now they're losing the English side? Is that what's happening?

SAMUEL: Yes. We have children who don't know English at all.

MARKS: Parents are English-speaking or--

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. My classmates, so when I go home, their grandchildren; they can't communicate with me.

MARKS: There's no attempt in Panama--Is there anybody who's doing what you're doing here? Is there any kind of association?


SAMUEL: Yes, yes, yes. But they're struggling. You would think--they are in this country--

MARKS: So in a way, Brooklyn is maybe the place where it's being preserved better than Panama?

SAMUEL: --but they are struggling. Right now.

MARKS: But you still maintain close contact back in Panama?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes. I go home every, every Christmas. Sometimes I go twice a year.

MARKS: At Christmas, there are big events in the Panamanian-West Indian community?

SAMUEL: Yes, there still is, still.

MARKS: They still perform old-style dances and things like that?

SAMUEL: They have a lot of parties. It's nice to go home Christmas time.

MARKS: I notice you received an award from the Panamanian government. Can you talk about that a little bit? I mean, they're aware of what you're doing here and this was--

SAMUEL: Yes. You see, even in Panama, we have a branch of the Dedicator because in the beginning, most of the students were coming from Panama. We were raising money here to bring them from Panama. So we had to select a screening group 56:00there. They still have this. In fact, they have grown up quite a bit. They give affairs, fundraising--

MARKS: Some of the people you've sponsored have gone back to Panama?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: They've been successful?

SAMUEL: Yes. There's one fellow now who is the president of the organization there, Sanchez. He's an engineer. Oh, he's doing very, very well, exceedingly well. He married an American girl. She's a teacher. She's working on Canal Zone, Balboa.

MARKS: So you were also sponsoring Hispanic Panamanians besides West Indians?


SAMUEL: Yes. [inaudible] It's hard to preserve. We give a scholarship in Panama at the University. Five hundred dollars for a student who is interested in West Indian heritage. Every year, we offer that. But it's hard to preserve it--very, very hard. Very hard. Because, you see, what happened, most of the West Indian people have died off. And then, people in my generation, most of us are here. Then, our children started to move away from the West Indian culture because--We 58:00started I would say because we resented the fact that we were natives and didn't know the language. So we went from one extreme to the other. Our parents were just as prejudiced. They would tell you plain, "I don't want you to have anything to do with it." "Dirty 'paniard," they called the natives.

MARKS: They ate iguana or something.

SAMUEL: Exactly, exactly.

MARKS: That's what Pat Ettrick told me.

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. It was just a distinct line. When we got married and moved into the city and realized that these people were people like we are, but only we couldn't communicate. When I say I don't speak Spanish today, I was not educated in Spanish. The Spanish I speak is the Spanish that you picked up from your neighbor.


MARKS: Sort of street language.

SAMUEL: [unintelligible] I cannot say I'm a woman with a Master's Degree and speak the kind of Spanish that I was speaking--ungrammatical, I mean. So we held it against our parents for not giving us a chance to-- But, they didn't know any better. These people brought them to this country to work and this is their livelihood and they raised us the best way they could, which means we had a lot of high moral values. Standards were really high, a lot. They put into us the fact that nobody is better than you are. You can do anything you want to do.

So, unlike the native Black here that learned from early that you were not the same as the White person, we didn't have that at all.


MARKS: If anything, you felt better than the--or--

SAMUEL: Yes. We were taught that the only good White man was a dead White man. You see? So then, you know that you are superior, too. These are the things that put into us that really meant something.

MARKS: That included the White people working on the Canal Zone, too, right?


MARKS: You felt that?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. These were the people they knew. Any--My father, his boss might be just eighteen years old, and that's his boss. They would call him "boy" and things like that. But they were doing the same thing in the reverse. They were doing the same thing because, to them, the native was, the "'paniard" was nobody.


MARKS: So you were separated from both sides--from the both the Americans and also from the Spanish Panamanians.

SAMUEL: Yes. Exactly.

MARKS: Do you think people in your parents' generation were thinking about going back? Did they feel they were in Panama temporarily and were planning to go back?

SAMUEL: Oh, yes. This was, yes.

MARKS: So they were really hanging on to--

SAMUEL: Everybody was going back. Everybody was going back. Everybody was going back to their home. They only came to work and make money to go back. Some of them never had a chance and never went back. My father never went back from 1908. When my mother went back, she came in 1913 and she had a chance to go back in '45.

MARKS: She never went back?

SAMUEL: No, she went back in '45, she went back. In fact, she died there. She went back in '52, '53, went back in '53 to spend three months there and then to 62:00come here and spend some time with us. She died there. From, from '13, she went to Panama and she didn't go back until '45. That's thirty-two years later she went back for the first time. And that is because we were grown and could send her back. But they never worked for enough money to go back--raise their family and go back East to see their people.

MARKS: They were determined to hang on to everything West Indian?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: When you moved into Panama City, was there already a sizable community of West Indians in Panama?

SAMUEL: Yes. There were West Indians who never lived on Canal Zone, never lived there. And West Indians who were born in Panama, way back in 18-something.

MARKS: They had come earlier? They had come.


SAMUEL: Yes. Africa--

MARKS: Maybe the railroad or something like that?

SAMUEL: Yes. I shouldn't say West Indians because they would be of African background.

MARKS: They were Black Panamanians?


MARKS: Like the Costenos?

SAMUEL: Yes. Our parents really did it for us, too, because they kept us away. So, now, it's the same thing but in the reverse, because those children-- They don't want any part of the West Indians--no part of us.

Last year, we had, I believe--We had an affair for three or four athletes--West Indians who made outstanding contributions to Panama, Black people. We brought 64:00them from Panama, here, from all over the country. And fortunately, most of the sports, at least all of the winners of any sports were of West Indian origin.

MARKS: In the '50s, wasn't there some big breakthrough in Panama, the West Indians? Wasn't there sort of the golden, tremendous breakthrough?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: That was mostly in sports? Or was it in other areas, too? Like people, there was a recognition of West Indian community?

SAMUEL: Yes. I attributed the "Vasco Nunez de Balboa." This was because of the recognition of the outstanding contribution made to Panamanians or as a 65:00Panamanian away from home, the contribution made. So it really wasn't just mine. It was the whole group. We went home some years ago; '77, '78, we went home. I was given the key to the city for the group. They did recognize. This was something that never was done for us.

MARKS: Wasn't there actually some law that Panamanian West Indians were actually seen as another group? I forget who the president was. I forget who told me.

SAMUEL: He just died. Arnulfo Arias.

MARKS: That's the one who just died in Miami? He had done something to discriminate against--They were viewed as almost like a foreign group?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: Something about passports.

SAMUEL: We had to buy our citizenship. But, you know, I am maybe--Maybe I 66:00shouldn't even say this. But I don't care because this is really the way I feel. When people were against him and spoke against him, I didn't. Because if he had not enforced those rules, I would not have been able to say "good morning" to my neighbor in Spanish.

MARKS: So it forced you to integrate.

SAMUEL: Exactly. We had property in the--We had property. We couldn't say we were not apart because a lot of people wouldn't buy any property in Panama. We were apart. So when he said, "If you are--if you don't speak the language, you are not a Panamanian--"

MARKS: There were actually people who would refuse to go into Republic of Panama and to buy property?

SAMUEL: Exactly.

MARKS: They were that strongly--

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. So today, there are a lot of people that are without anything. That is the reason. Those who bought had to hide from their neighbors then, to, 67:00to buy property.

MARKS: What is happening in the Zone? Are there still remnants of the West Indian community? Or have they really, mostly--?

SAMUEL: Very little, very little. My father, when he bought property, he didn't tell my mother. He was afraid she would have objected. He bought. There was a period when he retired from working for the American government, the pension would be as little as twenty-five dollars a month. If you had a radio or a refrigerator or anything like that, they gave you fifteen dollars a month. If you had children, who they thought could support you, they gave you little or nothing. So my father saw it coming and he went ahead and he bought property 68:00when it was very cheap. We have property we just sold in Panama very cheap. It was cheap, but today it's ten times or more what we paid for it.

MARKS: There was no discrimination in Panama against West Indians at the time about buying property or anything like that?

SAMUEL: Ten times, a whole lot more. No, no. You could buy property. As long as you had money, you could buy property.

MARKS: So as people learned Spanish, then they were just accepted as Panamanians? There was no--That whole discrimination thing kind of disappeared once people learned Spanish and started integrating into the community?

SAMUEL: Yes. Exactly.

MARKS: But integrating also meant losing West Indian heritage.

SAMUEL: Yes, yeah. One extreme to the other. On account of Arnulfo Arias, I could at least say "good morning" and buy bread for-- [laughter] I used to go and take private lessons.


Anyhow, if there's anything else I can--

MARKS: Is there anything you wanted to add about the future of the community here or in Panama--where you see it going or what you see happening?

SAMUEL: Well, I tell you, what I see by the end of this century, we would be an extinct generation in Panama, in Panama.

MARKS: There won't be any way to distinguish people of West Indian descent anymore? It will just be--

SAMUEL: No, gone.

MARKS: And no cultural elements?

SAMUEL: What I don't like--There will be hardly anything to say, "My father was there," "These people passed that way." We are trying to preserve some of it, but--


MARKS: Are you collecting artifacts or anything like that?

SAMUEL: Yes, yeah.

MARKS: What are you planning to do with them?

SAMUEL: At one point, we said we hope to establish a center here or in Panama, with the hope that we wouldn't be around to carry it on, but we could find enough younger people who would want to be a part of it to continue it.

MARKS: What sorts of things? Have you collected things already, or are you in the process?

SAMUEL: Yes. We have things like passports of some of the West Indians who came over early and the different identifications--the badge they would use. We have 71:00commissary books. The commissary book is like the--

MARKS: The ration?

SAMUEL: Yes. Welfare people have that ticket.

MARKS: Food stamps?

SAMUEL: Food stamps. Something like that.

MARKS: 'Cause it was the same? It was subsidized?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes. Commissary books. We have some of those. People didn't have to spend money in the commissary. They had a commissary, but they had this payroll deduction. If you needed like thirty dollars in commissary books--

MARKS: They would just knock it off the--

SAMUEL: Yes. So we have those. That was the only spending money we knew as children. You never had money passing in, through your hand.

MARKS: It was not a cash economy. It was just all subsidized like a company?

SAMUEL: Yes, yes.

MARKS: Do you think you'd be willing to lend some of these things to the Society for exhibit, when we do the exhibit?


SAMUEL: I think so. I think so. Last year, or maybe the year before, last year at the Schomburg there was an exhibit. Quite a bit of our material was there.

MARKS: Is that on permanent file there? Have they collected that? It was a loan?

SAMUEL: No. They gave it back. Just for the exhibit.

MARKS: When the collecting part starts up in a few months, maybe I can talk to you about lending some of these things for the exhibit.

SAMUEL: Yes, between-- Mr. Wayson is in charge of the Panamanian-West Indian Heritage.

MARKS: Okay, I can talk to him about it.

SAMUEL: We have dedicated--We don't have artifacts per se. We only have pictures of the cotillion and different affairs.

MARKS: Maybe we could talk about that later on, too, about lending some of those.

SAMUEL: We won't mind lending them.


MARKS: Good. Is there anything else you wanted to add? I just wanted to ask you something. I think that Hispanic Panamanians are coming into Brooklyn now. Is there still a distinction between Panamanians of West Indian descent and of Hispanic descent?

SAMUEL: No, no.

MARKS: It's really kind of coming together here, too.

SAMUEL: No, no, you don't find--You hardly find that here.

MARKS: That's not an issue?

SAMUEL: The young, very young natives who are coming here; they don't even know us.

MARKS: It's as if it's from another era.

SAMUEL: Yes. I think that's it, about it.

MARKS: Okay. Thank you very much.


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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Anesta Samuel

S. Anesta Samuel is one of the founders of the Dedicators, a club organized in 1953 with the aim of raising money for scholarships in the United States and in Panama. The organization is also devoted to the preservation of Panamanian-West Indian culture. Samuel was born circa 1919 in Panama to a couple who migrated from the West Indian island of Montserrat. Her father came to work in the Canal Zone, and she grew up in an all-West Indian settlement called Red Tank. While still a child, she resolved never to work for the Canal Zone government because of their discriminatory policies toward West Indians. There were also limited educational possibilities for West Indians, with little or no advancement beyond the eighth grade. While still in her teens, Samuel opened a beauty shop in the town of La Boca, the largest settlement of West Indians in the Canal Zone. The business did well enough to enable Samuel to open another beauty shop and a beauty school. She married in 1937, and continued to do well financially. After World War II, her husband decided to come to New York to study, and she accompanied him.

In the interview, S. Anesta Samuel relates notable moments of growing up in Panama and adapting to and thriving in new surroundings in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn for much of her life. Samuel discusses her efforts at sponsoring other Panamanian-West Indians who were coming to New York in search of opportunities. She describes the charitable work that she began with old friends, founding a club called Las Servidoras, which became a forerunner of The Dedicators, founded in 1953. Samuel considers the thinning out of distinctly Panamanian heritage in American life, and the efforts of the Panamanian-West Indian Heritage Association to preserve cultural elements. In closing, she acknowledges the generation gap between the Panama-born immigrants and Panamanian American youth. Interview conducted by Morton Marks.

Brooklyn Historical Society initiated the Hispanic Communities Documentation Project in 1988. Over fifty interviews were conducted to document the experiences of Brooklyn residents who arrived from Puerto Rico, Panama, Ecuador, and several other Central and South American nations in the latter half of the twentieth century. This collection includes recordings and transcripts of interviews conducted between 1988 and 1989. The oral histories often contain descriptions of immigration, living arrangements, neighborhood demographics, discrimination, employment, community development, and political leadership. Also included are photographs and printed ephemera.


Samuel, Anesta, Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks, August 16, 1988, Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories, 1989.004.10; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Brooklyn College
  • Panamanian-West Indian Heritage Asssociation
  • Samuel, Anesta


  • Balls (Parties)
  • Beauty Shops
  • Caribbean Americans
  • Education
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Hispanic Americans
  • Immigrants
  • Music
  • Panamanian Americans
  • Race discrimination
  • Spanish language
  • West Indian Americans


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Panama


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Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories