Emigration, Leaving Home: Jamaica to U.S.A and Panama, Early 20th Century

Graham Henry Sr.Circa 1945, 25 Years Old

Graham Henry Sr.Circa 1945, 25 Years Old


Graham Henry with 3 of his daughters

For My Henry Family


1950, Old Harbour Bay Jamaica

Working for the Yanqui Dollar

The word was out. One of Auntie’s American brothers, Graham, was coming to visit. As a youngster he had been one among the few fortunate enough in the early 1930s to leave the region in rural Clarendon where the Henry family lived and moved about: Orange River, Chapleton, Kellits. In the early part of the twentieth century, life in those communities was lived at a very basic level and the promises of easier living already being fulfilled in the big urban centres would hardly touch these communities for a half a century yet.

The young men at Ena’s store in Old Harbour Bay who, at the peak of their self conscious machismo were observers, wistfully engaged in inspecting the ease of movement, the confidence and the style of the young American as he came through the gate dressed sharply in a fashion that was unavailable to them: a style that suggested a  steady and reliable income, a style that was good enough for the city, a style which conjured up yellow brick roads of golden America. Fifteen years before, Graham himself had been dreaming the dream that these  young men were now dreaming; a ticket to the Land of Plenty.

Graham was conscious of the ripples in his wake as he walked easily into the yard where domestic animals shared the space with a bustling cohort of workers preparing meals for around ten customers seated at long tables under the shade of a shed roof away from the noonday sun. After all, emigration had been good to him. In less than 2 decades he had created his own business and acquired all the respect that success can bring. In his mid teens in the early 1930s, Graham and his twin brother Jack had had the great good fortune to be sponsored by relatives who earlier had left the dirt paths of Clarendon to go to the Land of Plenty.

The customers at Ena’s restaurant halted briefly their conversations, interrupted momentarily chewing the mouthful of fried fish and bammy;  the workers suspended their tasks. All attention turned upon the stranger. Ena’s brother had arrived.

His visit was uneventful in the main: a courtesy call to his sister whom he had not seen for nearly fifteen years. Two years his junior, his sister and he had gone in divergent directions since he left Jamaica and although there was much to say, Ena moved constantly between the kitchen, the bar and the restaurant. She never stopped to engage in conversation.

His stay lasted little more than an hour. Graham felt somewhat uncomfortable, uneasy. He understood and respected his sister’s single minded focus on her business. That single-minded focus was the fuel that he had used to launch himself into his own office cleaning business. He had put some distance between himself and the young men in Old Harbour Bay who moved about in Ena’s yard and the distance was not simply geography. His 15 year absence from the land of his birth while still in the formative years had changed him. He compared himself to these young men and wondered what he might have been had he stayed in rural Jamaica.

I know what I gained, but I wonder what I have lost?” Graham thought as he walked toward the gate on the way out of Ena’s yard.

One outgoing young man broke away from the group of youngsters in the yard and  approached Graham. “Maasta yu cyaan grease mi palm, no sah?” he said extending his right arm, palm upturned towards Graham. Graham reached into his pocket and produced some coins, carefully distributing an equal value to each of them. The youngsters were happy to receive the American coins from the pocket of the newly minted American visitor, but none more happy than Graham’s 10 year old nephew. On the way out of the yard, out of the country and out of his nephew’s life, Graham unbuckled the belt that he was wearing and handed it to the boy.

The waves of emigration would continue and 5 years after this contact, Graham’s teen age nephew would leave for another Land of Plenty, pulled out of the Caribbean to find a life which offered greater potential for material comfort in Canada. Boarding the plane at Kingston heading for Toronto in 1955 and insecure about his future in North America, the youngster pulled tight the leather belt around his waist and touched its buckle, his talisman, the gift of his Uncle.


A Durable Gesture: Graham's Gift to Garry

A Durable Gesture: Graham’s Gift to Garry


Post Scriptum 2014:

Emigrant Destinations 1850-1950


When Graham left rural Jamaica for the USA in the Great Depression he was following a well worn path out of the rural areas towards other destinations both within the Island and overseas.

Panama features prominently as a destination for Caribbean workers in the late nineteenth Century and the early twentieth century. The Panama Railroad and later the Panama Canal were important mega projects which pulled Jamaicans in numbers to find employment overseas. Many others rural residents like the Henry family were leaving rural areas to follow the steady stream of internal migrants to Kingston where that important city was beginning to take shape.

Colón Man

Throughout both the building of the Panama Railroad in the 1850s and the French excavation 30 years later, workers from Jamaica were recruited heavily.  In 1881, French recruiter Charles Gadpaille ran advertisements throughout Jamaica, offering wages much higher than average on the Caribbean island. The campaign showed the “Colón Man,” a Jamaican who had gone to work in Panama, returning to his home country a rich and prosperous man. This ideal caught on quickly in the largely working-class country, and drove a huge migration of Jamaicans to Panama in the latter half of the 19th century. But the promise of riches was an empty one: in reality, West Indians earned $0.10 an hour and the work was treacherous. During the eight-year French excavation period, of the more than 20,000 workers who died, most were West Indians. Strikes proved fruitless, as there were always more men eager to take the jobs. Despite the heavy recruitment of laborers from the West Indies, Colombia, and Cuba, only one in five workers stayed on the job longer than a year .(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/panama-workers/)

Despite the seductive appeal of the “Colón Man,” most Caribbean Islanders would resist emigration for material improvement and remain loyal to their Island home, reluctant to leave the warmth of family, the warmth of familiar environments and the warmth of the tropics to take residence in damp, cool, temperate Britain, which until the 1960s was the destination of preference of many emigrants from the Islands of the British West Indies. Climate was not the only  deterrent for emigration to the Motherland. The social environment was unsure and sometimes hostile: acceptance of Black people was sometimes conditional, sometimes not granted.
The USA by contrast, offered at least sub-tropical climates and select localities where there was an established population of people of colour and where a measure of integration was possible.
New York was the destination for many and once the initial shock of density of population and concentration of industry and services was absorbed, life was tolerable if not ideal for newcomers from the Caribbean. The 24 hour cycle of heavy urban activity would still, however be a shock to many. The scope and scale of everything, especially the intimidating and overwhelming presence of skyscrapers, would feature in the letters back to the social circles in the Caribbean. One colourful family member visiting New York in the 1960s expressing his discomfort in an environment which frightened him, described the urban frenzy of towering skyscrapers above and the 24 hour subterranean screeching subway service saying: “Hell a’ top, Hell a’ bottom and Hell in between” (The Deacon, Cecil Dewdney)
Despite the discomfort and alienation that many feel at the prospect of dislocation from home, family, identity  and culture, emigration  continues unabated and for the last 50 years, North America (as much Canada as the U.S.)  is the aspirational destination for people from the Caribbean as it is for humanity. Once dispersed from Africa eons ago, we humans have followed the gypsy in our soul and will always find motives to move beyond routine experiences and familiar terrains. And the beat goes on…


Graham’s Obituary

Graham “Hank” Henry
April 11, 1920 – February 5, 2013

SOUTH BEND – It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Graham ‘Hank’ Henry, 92. Hank passed away peacefully February 5, 2013, with his wife Alice of 53 years by his side, after an extended illness.

Hank was born in Old Harbor Bay, Jamaica April 11, 1920. He served in the British Navy in World War II as a chef, before immigrating to the United States following the war.

Hank is survived by his four loving daughters, Helen (Robert) Ursery, Kathleen (Ron) VanderMolen, Lynne (Michael) Hamilton, and Kimberly (Tom) Brady, and a son Graham Henry Jr., along with eighteen grandchildren including Michael, William, Hilary, Kelly, Graham III, Graham IV, Christina, Isaiah, Orion, Cole, Colin, Connor, Maxwell, Catherine, Jackson, Jordan, Aaron, Drew and nineteen great grandchildren.

Along with Alice, he started his own janitorial service in 1970. ABC Janitor service, Inc. Hank worked well into his eighties before retiring after having heart surgery.

He was an avid gardener, and a wonderful cook who loved preparing meals for Sunday dinners and special occasions. It didn’t matter what he prepared it was all great. Hank is best known for his lemon meringue pie and homemade salsa made with fresh tomatoes and peppers from his garden.

It’s the little things, the small, everyday occurrences that we’ll remember the laughs, the stories and the smiles.
That a special father, husband and person he was. Hank, Dad, Grandpa you will be missed. Rest in peace.
“To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”— Thomas Campbell

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 10AM on Monday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, South Bend. Friends may call from 2-6PM on Sunday at the McGann Hay, University Chapel, 2313 E. Edison Rd, where the Rosary will be prayed at 2PM.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Center for Hospice Care or Logan Center Recreation.
To send condolences to the family, please visit ww

A Gallery of Photos from Ena’s World
Taken from Deanne’s Albums
Old Harbour Bay at the  End of the Twentieth Century
“Nuff” Respect to the Regulars at Auntie’s Hot Spot
In the Decades of the Nineteen Eighties
And the Nineteen Nineties:
Mr. Basie, Mama Leets, G White, Collie,  Saagar, Doc, Lettuce,
Lancie, Congrie, Mr. Kitchen
Click on a photo to enlarge or start the Carousel of photos or use the arrows at the sides of the photos

One thought on “Emigration, Leaving Home: Jamaica to U.S.A and Panama, Early 20th Century

  1. Very well said. It is amazing how emigration was seen then, and is still seen today. We humans are always in search of a better life for ourselves and our families. Our ancestors who paved the way for us are to be thanked. It is not always easy leaving our comfort zones to seek out a better life, but it usually proves very beneficial when we do so with determination. I laughed out loud at the man who visited New York and said “Hell a’ top, Hell a’ bottom and Hell in between.” That was hilarious!

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