Why Did So Many Black Women Die? Jonestown at 35

35 years ago, on November 19, 1978, 73-year-old Hyacinth Thrash awoke to a nightmare in the jungles of Guyana. In one of the largest murder-suicides in world history, 918 people from her Peoples Temple church lay dead before her eyes, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of cyanide and fruit punch. The images from this gothic scene of carnage have become indelible: bodies, clad in simple workaday clothing, stretch into the distance in rows, face down on the ground. Seldom discussed and less widely known, however, is the fact that they are overwhelmingly black bodies.

Rendered “anonymous,” they represent complex extended families of children, elderly women, young women, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and nieces. They came to Jonestown, Guyana from communities all across the U.S., drawn by the utopic promise of life in a communal settlement, envisioned by a charismatic white messiah, as a socialist refuge from American racial apartheid. One of the most haunting scenes from the massacre’s aftermath is that of an adult with their arm around a child, protective in the throes of death. Thrash was the sole survivor on the premises.

Although the gruesome final snapshot of Jonestown is burned into the American popular imagination, the prelude to the massacre is not as well known. Founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was a multiracial Pentecostal congregation with roots in Indiana. Over the course of two decades the church would establish operations in Ukiah, San Francisco and Los Angeles before relocating the bulk of the congregation to Guyana in the late ‘70s, ostensibly to avoid government persecution for its radical views.

About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American. The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white. As per the cultural cliché, black women like Thrash were “the backbone” of Peoples Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church. 

It is troubling that of the scores of book length personal accounts, critical analyses and sociological appraisals on Peoples Temple and Jonestown only a few are by black women (the best of these have been compiled at the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” site). Thrash and Leslie Wagner–Wilson are currently the only two black women survivors to publish books on their experiences. Wagner-Wilson managed to escape Jonestown before the massacre with several of her family members.

As early African American members of the church when it was based in Indiana, Thrash and her sister tithed 20% of their income to Peoples Temple. Thousands of dollars in property sales, Social Security, disability, and welfare benefits from Temple members were funneled into the church’s empire. Despite being elderly and infirm, Thrash and her sister followed Jones from Indiana to Ukiah, San Francisco and Guyana before Thrash became disgruntled with the divide between Jones’ rhetoric of racial equality and the white-people-first reality of church leadership, though she nonetheless chose to remain.

Unpacking why so many black women died in Jonestown requires taking a critical look back at the racial underbelly of the Jonestown age. It demands confronting hard truths about the dangerously gendered seductions of organized religion; particularly given the global appeal that 24/7 prayer movements and charismatic Pentecostalism have for women of color.

According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation. Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade and yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched-up has not diminished for most African-American women, despite the often patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.

The widening wealth gap between blacks, whites and Latinos, coupled with the downward mobility of the black middle class, only amplifies the role of religion in black life. Because charismatic faith movements thrive in the presence of socioeconomic and political turbulence black religiosity is flourishing (as the breakout popularity of the new reality show Preachers of L.A. attests).

Peoples Temple rose to prominence in San Francisco during the turbulence of the post-civil rights, post-Black Power, post-Vietnam War era. A self-proclaimed Marxist who fetishized black liberation struggle, Jim Jones actively courted the support and approval of the Bay Area liberal political establishment. He skillfully mined the language of social justice, racial equality and anti-sexism in an era in which disillusion with the possibility of freedom from institutional oppression ran high.

He touted a liberation theology ethos (what he called ‘apostolic socialism’) which married the “best” parts of the Christian social gospel with a vision of communalism and egalitarianism that more closely aligned with his inherent atheism. Initially this rhetoric was actualized in an array of social welfare programs (such as free community meals, housing and health care) for church members, though it would ultimately be perverted through a systematic pattern of paranoia, abuse and persecution fueled by Jones and his inner circle.

Numerous accounts document how Temple members were party to and complicit in the public abuse, harassment, humiliation and sexual exploitation of fellow parishioners. Some members vigorously defended these practices up until the final act of murder-suicide, an event that had been promoted and rehearsed several times. When the fated day came, Christine Miller, an African-American woman in her 50s, was the sole objector caught on the so-called death tape, challenging Jones’ death decree until she was shouted down by zealous African-American Temple members.

It’s difficult to listen to or read these accounts without feeling the deep complicity of the community. As many survivors have stated, Peoples Temple was initially an uplifting experience because of its ability to unify members around the common cause of social justice. Its message of racial harmony and cultural diversity resonated with white counterculture folk, aging white radicals, and progressive Christians looking for an alternative to the insularity of mainstream traditions like the Black Church and people of color from all walks of life.

But this veneer of equality hid a pernicious race and gender hierarchy in which the Temple’s vaunted inner circle was comprised of white women who were fatally loyal to Jones and his perverse will. This tight knit cadre of white women was Jones’ brain trust, acting as his psychological henchwomen and enforcers, handling Temple funds, intimidating potential defectors, and seducing VIPs out of political expediency.

To paraphrase San Diego State University professor Rebecca Moore—whose sisters Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore were two of Jones’ main lover/lieutenants—if any Peoples Temple constituency had the power to stop the Jonestown massacre, these women did. But in eschewing the bourgeois trappings of “proper” white femininity they wound up reinforcing a white supremacist social order that some African-American members likened to that of the plantation, complete with Miss Ann wielding the whip.

In many regards, Jones became the charismatic white Jesus father-figure that so many black women are besotted with today. In The Onliest One Alive, Thrash speaks of how Jones’ straying from the Bible was the fatal flaw of Peoples Temple; if he’d only been more of a God-fearing Christian, instead of a false prophet who set himself up as God, then surely the massacre wouldn’t have happened.

She believed she was spared from the massacre because “guardian angels” were protecting her and “God was in the plan.” But where was God for the 918 dead, some of the devoutest women on the planet?

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  • Christ Disciple

    God warned the 700+ adults in advance through the Scriptures. But because they refused to read the bible for themselves, they were deceived

    “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.… Mat 24:23-24

  • Katrina Anderson

    That’s an interesting perspective and one that may be valid. But why would God allow the children to suffer and die because of a mistake made by their parents? In our justice system today, it would be considered cruel to even jail a child based on the actions of the parent. Shouldn’t God have higher standards than ourselves and saved the life of every child at Jonestown, at the very least?

  • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

    God gave each of us “free will” so sadly in this case the children suffered because of the sins, the stupidity of out right dumb parents who made their children drink poison, plain and simple. We see this all the time in our community today when children suffer without proper physical and financial protection, love, guidance and training from their ill responsible parents.

  • Katrina Anderson

    Yes, parents gave their children poison to drink before killing themselves. But it hadn’t been easy to leave Jonestown or show any disagreement. A US congressman was shot and killed that day while he was there to investigate rumors that people were being held against their will. If a parent is witnessing the murder of a congressman, I’m not sure what other options they felt they had for their child in that moment…make them drink poison and pray they’re saved by a miracle or see their child die in front of them by a gun. But it begs the question, why didn’t God provide a miracle at least to save the children?

  • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

    sister I can’t say what’s in the mind of god but what I will say is the day those children “foolish
    and naive parents” chose to believe in a man NOT GOD but a strange man and leave here following a strange man into a strange land them and their children fate was doomed.

  • Katrina Anderson

    I guess what I’m getting at is why didn’t God provide a miracle to save the life of every child in Jonestown? In some ways, I can understand why adults would have to die for really terrible decisions. It’s a given when dealing with billions upon billions of imperfect human beings, there will be at least a few who’ll make some regrettable decisions every once in a while. But if we’re dealing with a god who provides protection and can use miracles to do it, shouldn’t he use his powers to protect the most vulnerable among us–the children? Yes, adults will be stupid sometimes but isn’t God supposed to be the safety net and backup plan for children with stupid parents?

  • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

    sister even god can’t or want save us from stupidity, naivety, being dumb or using poor judgment cause in the book he/she gave us and the prophets he sent to us instructed us to be wise and seek knowledge and wisdom listen to wise counseling and warn us to be wise and not to be stupid dumb and lazy. So when these things happen it’s on us and our children we can’t blame no one but us, see we want to be lazy and depend on someone or somebody to come in and save us after we did something dumb or stupid but that ain’t going to happen and god never said he/she would, read the entire book of Proverbs in the bible and Nehemiah which talks about a foolish people.

  • Katrina Anderson

    Okay. I thought people gave God credit when someone’s life is saved. But if you’re saying God is unable to save someone’s life, then it makes a little more sense to me why he allowed the children at Jonestown to die. It’s unfortunate that God’s unable to save a child’s life considering that children can’t pick who they’re born to. If they could, I’m sure they would choose to be born to the smartest parents in the world who would never make mistakes.

    So if God can’t save an innocent child’s life, can we really say he’s “all powerful”?

  • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

    I didn’t say god can’t because that would be untrue I would say in this case god didn’t or wouldn’t however “god knows what we know not” so it’s impossible for us to get into the mind of god for “god is all powerful and all knowing”.

  • Katrina Anderson

    Okay, Burning Bush. If God is “all knowing,” then that means he thought it wise that the children at Jonestown should have died that day. If God is “all powerful,” then that means he was able to prevent the children from dying.

    If God is “all knowing” and was capable of saving the children but didn’t, is it fair for us to expect parents to save the children when those parents don’t know everything and they aren’t able to perform miracles? If God knows everything and can do anything, why don’t we expect him to save the lives of children?

  • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

    “Why Did So Many Black Women Die?” Because they were gullible and thought Jim Jones was their savior.