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Panamanian Food Through the Lens of James Weldon Johnson

Panamanian Food Through the Lens of James Weldon Johnson

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) made a name for himself as an author, the first editor of the NACCP magazine the Crisis and as the composer the Negro National Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. But few know that this Atlanta University graduate was a foodie (just read Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson) and fluent in Spanish. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as a U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906-1908) and the Central American republic of Nicaragua (1909-1913). While in Central America, Johnson noted the essential role of African Americans in the construction of the Panama Canal which lasted from 1880 to 1914 with several starts and stops under French and then U. S. controlled contracts.

“Now, Negroes were not a rare sight in Panama; they were almost as ubiquitous there as they are now in Harlem; the spade work on the Canal was being done mainly be Negroes,” writes Johnson in 1909. "So these that I saw in the Pacific Mail office made no special demands on my attention until I gradually perceived that they were not working as janitors or laborers, but doing clerical work. . . . I could not refrain from asking the agent about them.He informed that the very best accountants and bookkeepers to be found in Panama were educated Jamaican Negroes.” A majority of Jamaicans that came to work on the canal settled in Panama where their culinary foot print remains today but one creolized with the indigenous and Spanish culture of Panama.

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