George W. Westerman Papers

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Collection Data

The George Westerman Papers document the numerous and diverse interests of this journalist, sociologist, diplomat and activist, who was deeply immersed in issues relating to practically every issue on the isthmus of Panama, especially those affecting people of West Indian origin, from the 1940s through the early 1980s. The collection consists primarily of personal papers, news articles and administrative files pertaining to Westerman's journalism career, his published and unpublished writings, speeches, conference papers, and material relating to his career as an impresario. Additionally, the collection encompasses his involvement in Panamanian politics, United States-Panamanian relations, especially Panama Canal Treaty negotiations, as well as education, labor, ameliorating conditions associated with racial discrimination, and sports. There is also reference material about various aspects of West Indian life in Panama. Publications or news articles written by Westerman which pertain to a particular subject are housed in folders at the beginning of that series. At the end of several series there is a folder containing publications not written by Westerman. Approximately 20% of the collection is written in Spanish. Some Spanish language material appears in every series.
Westerman, George W. (Creator)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1886 - 1988
Library locations
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division
Shelf locator: Sc MG 505
African American entertainers
African American musicians
African American singers
Ambassadors -- Panama
Blacks -- Education (Higher) -- Panama
Blacks -- Employment -- Panama
Blacks -- Panama
Blacks -- Panama -- Canal Zone
Blacks -- Religion -- Panama
Blacks -- Social conditions -- Panama
Communism -- Panama -- Canal Zone
Community organization -- Panama
Discrimination in education -- Panama -- Canal Zone
Education -- Panama
Education (Higher) -- Panama
Fraternal organizations -- Panama
Housing -- Panama
Housing development -- Panama
Journalists -- Panama
Labor -- Panama
Labor unions -- Panama
Labor unions -- Panama -- Canal Zone
Minorities -- Panama
Nationalism -- Panama
Newspaper editors -- Panama
Political parties -- Panama
Prefabricated houses -- Panama
Race discrimination -- Panama
Racism in education -- Panama
Sports -- Panama
Tennis players -- Panama
West Indians
West Indians -- Panama -- History
World War, 1939-1945 -- Panama
Canal Zone
Panama -- Foreign relations -- United States
Panama -- Politics and government
Panama -- Race relations
Panama -- Religion
Panama -- Social conditions
Panama Canal (Panama)
United States -- Foreign relations -- Panama
Anderson, Marian, 1897-1993
Barrow, Errol Walton, 1920-1987
Guardia, Ernesto de la, b. 1885
Powell, Adam Clayton, 1908-1972
Schuyler, Philippa, 1932-1967
Sullivan, Leonor K.
Tubman, William V. S., 1895-1971
Warfield, William
Westerman, George W.
Young, Sidney Adolphus, 1898-
Dedicators, Inc. (New York, N.Y.)
Inter-American Press Association
Isthmian Negro Youth Congress
National Civic League (Panama)
National Patriotic Coalition Party (Panama)
Organization of American States
Panama American (Panama)
Panama Railroad Co.
Renovador Party (Panama)
United Nations
United Nations Publications (Agency)
Westerman Concerts (Firm)
Chiari Remón, Roberto Francisco, 1905-1981
Panama Canal Treaties
Remón, José A.
Biographical/historical: Journalist, sociologist, and diplomat, George Washington Westerman was a Panamanian of West Indian origin and has been identified with almost every major social, cultural, civic and labor struggle, particularly those affecting people of West Indian descent on the Isthmus, dating to the 1940s. Westerman served as a bridge between Panamanian West Indians, the American managers of the Canal Zone, and the Panamanians. He waged a relentless battle against social inequities and discriminatory racial practices in all fields. Born in Colon, Panama February 22, 1910 of a Barbadian father and a St. Lucian mother, Westerman, like many other West Indian Panamanians of his generation, had a limited formal education. He attended the Canal Zone Elementary School at La Boca (the West Indian district) between 1916 and 1920 through third grade. From 1920 until 1923 he was tutored by Samuel A. Inniss, one of the leaders in the 1920 strike of West Indian workers against the Canal Zone government. Westerman described himself as being largely self-taught and a prolific reader, especially of history and black literature; he also took correspondence courses. Although he did not marry, he maintained close, active communication with his family, helping many of them pursue their education and career goals, particularly that of Rex Williams, Westerman's nephew and fellow journalist. Westerman's secretarial and stenographic skills won him clerical jobs on the Panama Canal Zone, which was unusual for a man of West Indian descent. Between 1925 and 1928 he was a messenger and office helper for the Transportation Division of the Supply Department for the Panama Canal Company. From 1928 to 1943 he worked for the Compania Panameña de Fuerza y Luz (the Panama Power and Light Company) as a typist/stenographer and secretary to the assistant treasurer. He later went on to become the chief of the Steno-Typist section for this same company. From 1943 until 1956 he served as secretary to the superintendent of the National Brewery. It was here Westerman met Ernesto de la Guardia, Jr., future president of Panama (1956-1960). The two men became close political allies. Westerman's primary profession was journalism. He began his career at age sixteen as the sports contributor to The Panama American. He also worked for The Star & Herald, a daily, the black weekly The Workman, writing under the pen name "The Greek" and was a columnist for The Panama American from 1932 to 1941. From 1928 until 1932 he was the sports editor for The Panama Tribune, established in 1928 by a group of West Indian workers. This English language weekly, with a circulation of 8000, was the voice of the West Indian community mid a vehicle for protesting the denial of social justice to thousands of non-U. S. citizens working for the American government on the Canal Zone. By 1938, Westerman had become associate editor of The Panama Tribune, and when the founder, Sidney Young, died in 1959, Westerman purchased the paper from his widow, thus becoming the owner and editor. He wrote an editorial "The Passing Review" at least as early as 1935 and continued to contribute columns to the paper. Due to economic considerations and differences with the military government then in power, the newspaper folded in 1973. Prior to and following The Panama Tribune's collapse, Westerman wrote for other Panamanian newspapers as well as for the American Miami Herald and Dix New Media of Ohio. He was a member of the Inter American Press Association, a Latin American and United States professional organization, and served as its regional vice president of the Freedom of the Press Committee from 1964-1970. Westerman gained national prominence as a tennis player. In 1936 and 1938 he won both the singles and doubles titles in the Panamanian National Tennis Championship under the auspices of the National Olympic Committee, and in 1938 he was a member of the tennis team representing Panama in the IV Central American and Caribbean Olympiad. Westerman involved himself in many areas which would serve to advance West Indian Panamanians, particularly in the fields of education, labor, politics, and housing. In the area of education, he sought to provide role models for Panamanians of West Indian descent. He collected autographed photographs with accompanying biographical sketches of fifty outstanding African Americans, and presented this gift to the library of La Boca School (his alma mater) where the photographs were placed on exhibit. He was at the forefront in establishing a collection of books written by African-American authors and about African-American life, which led to the creation of the first central library in the Canal Zone Colored Schools. Westerman supported the 1954 language and curriculum conversion policy in Canal Zone schools which affected non-U. S. citizens. This policy mandated a change from an American curriculum in English to a Spanish language curriculum emphasizing Panamanian history and culture. The purpose was to facilitate the transition of students into Panamanian society and citizenship; however the rapid transition to the new curriculum caused many West Indian teachers who could not speak Spanish to lose their positions. Westerman frequently used cultural programs as a method of fostering pride and educating Panamanian youth about the accomplishments of their African heritage. In 1942 he was one the leading figures in the founding of the Isthmian Negro Youth Congress (INYC), an organization comprised of Panamanians of West Indian descent. He served as director of the Bulletin and wrote the introduction for a pamphlet entitled An Exhibit on the Races of Mankind, which the INYC published. In the mid 1940s he chaired the Intercultural Committee of the INYC, bringing top African-American entertainers to perform in Panama, including William Allen, Todd Duncan, Hazel Lawson, Philippa Schuyler, William Grant Still and Florizelle Wilson. The INYC also sponsored the first Negro History Week observance on the Isthmus. Applying his talent as an impresario, in 1949 he founded and became the director of Westerman Concerts, an agency which sponsored performances in Panama of Marian Anderson, William Warfield, and Porgy and Bess, in addition to many other entertainers. He operated this agency until 1956, when other responsibilities became the focus of his attention. Westerman became actively involved in politics in the 1940s. Using his influence in the community, he organized the membership of the National Civic League to lobby the Constitutional Assembly to amend the 1941 Constitution. This Constitution had effectively denationalized Panamanian bom children of foreign parents by requiring that they pass a test on the history and other aspects of Panama after coming of age before Panamanian citizenship would be granted. Through his editorials and other columns in The Panama Tribune, Westerman urged his readers to seek the passage of this amendment. Although his objective had been an amendment which would restore full citizenship, the 1946 amendment only bestowed conditional citizenship to the affected groups. It was not until 1960, with the passage of the "Bazan Amendment" enacted under President Roberto Chiari, that the right of full citizenship from birth was restored. Another issue Westerman protested was the Panamanian Immigration Law of 1948 which forced African Americans and other "prohibited peoples" who wished to visit Panama to pay a deposit of $500 to guarantee their return to their country of origin. This was in contrast to white visitors who only had to pay a deposit of $150. Westerman's full immersion into party politics occurred during the 1956 presidential election when he supported the candidacy of his friend, Ernesto de la Guardia, for president. Westerman joined the National Patriotic Coalition Party and organized the West Indian community to participate in the national election. He was in charge of the employment section of the party and recommended hundreds of West Indians for jobs. He also distributed food, gasoline and other favors to win votes for his candidate. As a reward for this crucial support for his successful election, de la Guardia appointed Westerman a delegate with the rank of ambassador (Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary) to the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he served from 1956-1960. Westerman was the first Panamanian of West Indian parentage to enter Panama's diplomatic service. His advocacy of minority rights resulted in his serving on the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly which dealt with independence for non-self-governing territories and the self-determination of emerging African and Caribbean nations. In this capacity, he prepared statements for the independence of South West Africa (now called Namibia) and Togoland (presently Togo). He attended the independence celebrations of Ghana, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago as well as the presidential inaugurations of William V. S Tubman of Liberia, and John F. Kennedy of the United States. Following the death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, Westerman was considered, among others, as a candidate for the postition. In 1967 the Panamanian government appointed Westerman Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in order to achieve diplomatic relations with the new Caribbean nations and to support their admittance to the Organization of American States. He was also appointed honorary Consul to Barbados while in Panama, a position he held in 1968 and 1969. Westerman's formal attempt to improve the West Indian Panamanian situation in regard to United States-Panamanian relations dates to at least the early 1950s when he appeared before a Panamanian Negotiating Commission in Washington and described racially discriminatory practices on the Canal Zone and treaty violations. Westerman also researched a strongly worded petition presented to Vice President Henry A. Wallace condemning the dual system under which non-U. S. citizens worked for the federal government. Wallace promised to conduct a personal investigation into the charges made. Using his contacts in the United States, he sought support from politicians such as U. S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who in 1952 read a speech Westerman had given regarding relations between the United States and Panama that focused on some of the tensions between the two countries, into the Congressional Record. Negotiations for the 1955 treaty included discussions concerning discrepancies in wages and retirement plans. Westerman unsuccessfully sought to gain permission for Panamanians of West Indian descent who wanted to serve in the American military during World War II in exchange for immediate citizenship rights. Beyond Westerman's concerns for improving the conditions and situation of West Indian Panamanians, he clearly saw himself as a Panamanian and worked with all Panamanians on behalf of his country. In 1962 he served with the vice president of Panama on a three-man commission charged with seeking relief from anti-tax haven provisions of a bill then before the United States Congress. The tax haven law encouraged American corporations to invest money in Panama because of the tax incentives, thereby providing about 5000 jobs to Panamanians. Westerman maintained an active correspondence with American officials involved in negotiating the 1967 treaty and with the American ambassador to Panama, the governor of the Canal Zone, and U. S. Congressman Andrew Young concerning several aspects of United States-Panama relations. He also supported a proviso in the 1977 treaty for an increase in rent paid by the United States to Panama. Labor issues as they affected workers on the Canal Zone was another area in which Westerman exercised his considerable personal and political influence. In the late 1940s The Panama Tribune, via Westerman and others, took the initiative in organizing the committee that fought for a new CIO union to represent non-U. S. workers on the Canal Zone to replace a local of the United Public Workers of America, which was reportedly under Communist control. Additionally, he supported a 1960 bill to increase cash relief payments for retired employees of the Panama Canal Company, and was chairman of the Scholarship Committee of the National Maritime Union, which provided scholarships to over sixty children of members to attend any accredited high school in Panama. Westerman developed numerous contacts in Panama and the United States and utilized his relationships with political and business associates to pursue a variety of business enterprises, most notably the construction of houses, particularly prefabricated homes, for Panama's lower middle class. He also attempted ventures in the food and alcoholic beverages industries, and the minting of coins for numismatists, among others. Although he engaged in these pursuits from the 1950s through the mid-1970s, none was successful. Westerman wrote numerous pamphlets about United States-Panamanian relations, focusing on socio-economic conditions affecting the people of Panama and the Canal Zone, West Indian laborers on the Canal Zone, treaty negotiations, education, and housing issues, as well as Panamanian political figures, sports and most significantly, West Indian contributions to the history of Panama. In total he authored thirty-four publications and prepared manuscripts for many more which were not published. In 1950 Westerman achieved international recognition when he presented a paper about West Indians as a minority group in Panama before the First International Congress of Sociologists and Political Scientists in Zurich, Switzerland. Following that experience, he regularly attended conferences dealing with the Pan-American Highway, mass media in society, blacks in the Americas, immigration, and Catholic women in Panama, among other topics. Westerman travelled in the United States where he gave speeches about the history of West Indians in Panama, business possibilities in Panama, and other timely issues affecting his country. Importantly, he was went on two lecture tours, in 1966 and 1973, in an effort to educate and persuade Americans to support Panamanian rights during canal treaty negotiations. Westerman served as chairman or treasurer of numerous civic, cultural and educational organizations in Panama, and was a member of many learned societies such as the American Sociological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received numerous decorations, awards and citations granted by both Panama and international bodies for a variety of services in the furtherance of human rights and the fostering of international goodwill. In 1953 he was awarded Panama's highest honor, the Vasco Nuñez de Balboa de Panama decoration, and also received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Philathea College in Canada, and the Honor of Merit from Haiti. This man of distinction died on August 31, 1988 in the Colon Old Folks Home after a long illness.
Physical Description
Extent: 58 linear ft.
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b16421860
MSS Unit ID: 20916
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): ee54fe50-60ad-0134-d5f4-00505686d14e
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