Black Deaths and Black Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus

Panama Canal under construction, 1908 (Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection)

That coronavirus (COVID-19) is “the great equalizer” has quickly become an old and tired adage, rightly critiqued by scholars and observers of structural racism and inequality throughout the U.S. The first 12 people to die in St. Louis, Missouri, a city already plagued by Black deaths through police brutality, were all Black. 70% of the deceased in Louisiana are Black. Jason Hargrove, a Black Detroit bus driver who passed away on April 1, posted a video of himself talking about the vulnerabilities of being a transit worker after a passenger coughed on him, exemplifying how race and class disparities have placed people like himself under constant threat of the virus’s spread.

These trends are perhaps not surprising, but the knowledge of racial disparities does not make grieving less difficult. Seeing the families and friends of the deceased grieve through Twitter and Facebook posts, I was struck by how these personal losses and personal memorials create a massive archive of Black inequality and Black death. How does one collectively mourn when traditional forms of mourning are inaccessible and threaten the continued spread of the virus? Mourners have postponed funerals until an uncertain future, live-streamed proceedings on YouTube or Zoom, or stood physically distanced inside funeral homes with a considerably limited number of guests. Patrick J. Kearns, a Queens, NY funeral home owner, said that funeral services for West Indian families in his area have been severely interrupted: “How do we tell families that you can only bring your close family in when your family has 37 people in it?” Some likely have not received any public memorials or support — those who are homeless and uncounted as coronavirus-related deaths, who are in immigration detention limbo, who are struggling with their health while serving long sentences and whose families have not been contacted.

Like Sasha Turner in June of last year on this same blog, I turned to histories of death and mourning to try to make sense out of towering loss. The pandemic’s particular impact on Black people had miserable, grim parallels to the experience of Black Caribbean immigrants to Panama during the Canal construction in the early twentieth century, where the threat of malaria, yellow fever, and industrial accidents disproportionately killed them. By the official count of the Canal Commission, disease and accidents claimed 5,609 lives (though this is likely a serious underestimation). Black workers accounted for 80% of these deaths. The estimated combined death toll during the French and American Canal construction periods was closer to 25,000 people.1 Remembering the early years of construction, a West Indian man named Alfred Dottin expressed the overwhelming sense of mortality that pervaded the period, saying, “Death was our constant companion,” and describing how he saw “the train loads of dead being carted away daily, as if they were so much lumber.” 2

When they died, the bodies of West Indian laborers commonly went unidentified. They were buried in segregated cemeteries without a name, without notifying their kin, and without anyone assuming responsibility. This was the case even with men who were directly employed by the Canal and whose deaths were witnessed. For example, as the men of Gang #264 finished setting up a minefield for a controlled explosion, “a flash of lightning ignited the charges and the whole exploded simultaneously.” One Black man died in the resulting explosion. The report notes that he was “evidently one of the men of gang #264,” but despite knowing his affiliation, U.S. imperial indifference left this man unidentified.3 He was buried in an anonymous grave. In New York, more than 25 bodies a day are being buried in Hart Island, relegated there if they have not been claimed after 14 days. The island has historically housed unmarked mass graves for the poor (who in New York are disproportionately Black and Latino), buried by inmates from Riker’s. A visit to the island right now is almost impossible and requires processing through the Department of Corrections.

It is only through the later intervention of their loved ones, mostly wives and mothers in the islands, that we even know the names and lives of the deceased during the Canal construction. Upon hearing (or guessing) that their relatives had passed, West Indian women contacted U.S. and British authorities to help them recover the belongings of their dead. They humbly begged for information on their loved ones, often describing their grisly deaths, such as Garfield Marshall’s mother Millicent from Bridgetown, Barbados, who she described “was employed by the Americans as a brakesman on the train at Gatun Panama, Canal Zone, the destruction of his body that caused his death was this, the train ran across his back almost dividing his upper body and smashed his left hand in pieces and one of his feet.”4 They also castigated these same authorities for ignoring their pleas, such as Frances Mahon who complained to the Governor of Barbados that “While grieved for the loss of my husband and then to be snubbed by the person to whom I expected to have got information from was more than painful.”5

Many of the women did receive the belongings of their loved ones, including clothes, personal accessories, and leftover wages. Some did not. Nevertheless, their interventions to the authorities rejected the devaluation of anonymous Black dead in the Canal construction and collected their names, lives, and kinship ties for the historical archive. To this day, West Indians in the island attempt to locate the unmarked graves of their loved ones from the construction period, buried in segregated cemeteries that had lain for decades in gross neglect, with headstones badly worn and graves unidentified. Starting in 2006, the CGM (Corozal, Gatun, Mt Hope) Cemetery Preservation Foundation, founded by a West Indian Panamanian woman, Mrs. Frances Williams Yearwood, spearheaded a preservation effort for these burial grounds. In 2010, the World Monuments Fund declared these cemeteries endangered sites, and in 2012, after much lobbying, the Panamanian National Assembly passed Law #7 declaring them National Historic Patrimony.

In a recent viral Medium post, Julio Vincent Gambuto warned us to prepare for “the ultimate gaslighting” in the aftermath of the virus, an “all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. You didn’t see homeless people dead on the street. You didn’t see inequality. You didn’t see indifference.” This process has already started. Surgeon General Jerome Adams called on Black Americans to stop drinking and doing drugs to prevent the spread. “Step up,” he said, “Do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big momma, do it for your pop-pop.” The narrative of personal responsibility and Black pathology is being disseminated from the largest stage of power — you didn’t see racial disparity, you didn’t see state indifference letting Black people die without mention. The story of West Indian deaths in Panama, though temporally and geographically distant, reminds us that the work of grieving, memorializing, and archiving the deaths of Black people has historically laid on the shoulders of their kin and community. Without this, their deaths would stay unaccounted, their lives unremarked. Future “success” in controlling the coronavirus will become the central narrative, while the long-historical and structural disparities that have failed and killed Black people throughout the diaspora continue unmeasured.

  1. U.S. Congress, Senate, Panama Canal Treaties, Report of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, with Supplemental and Minority Views, 95th Congress, 2nd Session (DC: Washington Printing Office, 1978), 54.
  2. Letter by Alfred E. Dottin, Isthmian Historical Society Competition for the best true stories of life and work on the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal, University of Florida’s Digital Library of the Caribbean,
  3. Coroner’s Report, October 12, 1908, Folder 2-L-080000: (Untitled), Record Group 185: Records of the Panama Canal, Entry 30: General Correspondence, 1905-1914, National Archives and Records Administration.
  4. Letter from Millicent Marshall to Acting Governor of Barbados, Lord Basil Blackwood, July 4, 1908, Records of the Foreign Office, Consulate: Panama, General Correspondence, FO 288/110: “From Miscellaneous, 1908, July 1-Dec 31” (Kew, England: The National Archives), 22-23.
  5. Letter from Frances Mahon to the Governor of Barbados, February 23rd, 1906, Records of the Foreign Office, Consulate: Panama, General Correspondence, FO 288/100: “From Miscellaneous, 1906, January 1-July 19” (Kew, England: The National Archives), 110.
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Joan Flores-Villalobos

Joan Flores-Villalobos is an Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in African Diaspora History in 2018. Her current book project, The Silver Women: Gender, Migration, and Labor at the Panama Canal, 1904-1914, explores the role of migrant West Indian women during the Panama Canal construction. Her work has been supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, the American Historical Association, and the American Association of University Women.

Comments on “Black Deaths and Black Mourning in the Time of Coronavirus

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    Your work is very interesting

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    Thank you for this piece and your overall work. As a young woman of Panamanian decent who can trace her Caribbean roots this history is too often unrecognized in our community.

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    In the names of my West Indian ancestors that arrived in Panama from 4 different Caribbean Islands, I Thank You!. Their stories are largely forgotten in a world that has benefitted so greatly by the Panama Canal that they built.
    A tribute should also be made the countless Chinese immigrants to Panama who labored under slave-like conditions building the Trans-Isthmian Railroad – another gift to the world.

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    Thank you for sharing this portion of Black history of which I had no knowledge.

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