Thirty-eight years ago, on November 18, 1978, nine hundred and nine Peoples Temple church members (including over three hundred children) died from a cyanide cocktail of Flavor Aid in the Jonestown, Guyana jungle settlement named after the church’s white founder, the Reverend Jim Jones. The majority of those who died were Black women and children; a fact that has been roundly marginalized and demonized.
The standard myth of Jonestown is that there was no organized Black resistance or challenge to Jones’ leadership. Yet, on the morning of the massacre, Jonestown survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson escaped from the settlement with a group of young African American men and women who’d been planning their exit for months. In 2008, Wilson published Slavery of Faith, a memoir on her life in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. To date, she is the only Black female Jonestown survivor to have written a book on her experiences. Wilson lost her mother, sister, brother, niece, nephew and husband at Jonestown. She currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and was featured in CNN’s 2006 documentary Escape From Jonestown and the BBC’s American Dreams. She serves on the Speakers Bureau for the Jonestown Institute and has done motivational speaking on her experiences to churches, associations, women’s groups, and homeless shelters. Twitter @lwagnerwilson
On November 17th, she will be speaking at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture in Los Angeles, as part of a cast discussion on my short film White Nights, Black Paradise, adapted from my 2015 novel. The film focuses on Black women’s political resistance, relationships and social investment in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. In the following interview, Wilson reflects on the erasure of Black women from mainstream portrayals of Peoples Temple and Jonestown as well as the implications of Jonestown in the age of Trump.
When did you first become aware of the plan to escape from Jonestown?
Dianne Louie, Richard Clark’s significant other, and I began a friendship. She worked in the Jonestown Pharmacy and I worked with Dr. Larry Schacht (the doctor who supplied the lethal cocktail of cyanide and Flavor Aid) in the medical office. We slowly began to decipher if we were friend or foe. After deciding that we were friends, she shared that Richard had been devising an escape route shortly after he arrived in Jonestown.
How were you able to elude the “authorities” in the planning?
The mission was not spoken about. Once Dianne told me I had been voted in to go, we never spoke openly about it. When it was time, I would know. There were others, but I did not know their names. We knew how dangerous this was—both the discovery of the plot and the actual escape. We also knew that paranoia was rampant in the camp and we could not trust anyone, except ourselves.
Do you believe Black women’s perspectives have been well represented in the existing literature (excluding the reflections from survivors on the site Alternative Considerations of Jonestown)?
Actually, not only have Black women’s perspectives been ignored, but the Black experience and disparity in Peoples Temple and Jonestown haven’t been fully addressed. However, there are still Black women who were part of the organization who have not yet written their stories. What I find most disturbing is that our individual experiences as people of color have been basically ignored. We have had virtually no voice when it comes to mainstream coverage and documentation of what happened. As far as the media, book deals, film deals; our voices and individual stories have not been sought out. We were the backs upon which Peoples Temple existed and grew from. We were the majority of what made up Peoples Temple and of course, Jonestown. However, there was a book by Mark Lane that actually spoke about Black women’s experiences which led them to Peoples Temple. That was impressive. We were no different than our ancestors who actually built the United States from free labor called chattel slavery.
Do you see your experiences with Peoples Temple as relevant to the conditions of poverty, racism, sexism and disenfranchisement that Black women currently face?
Peoples Temple’s rise was because of the disenfranchisement of Black women and mothers. Many Black churches did not answer the call to accept and welcome everyone regardless of the baggage they brought with them. Peoples Temple’s programs to feed the hungry, provide legal advice and defense, health care, and a place where people felt protected and not alone were the cornerstone of why so many Black people joined.
Today, Black women face tremendous challenges. This is not so different than in 1978 when my family joined. My mother was a successful business owner, but she was single and it was difficult for her. This was a time when racism was still at the forefront in our society.
Now, with so many of our men—brothers, husbands and children—incarcerated our women are left without male support and protection, it is difficult. There are many, many Black women who have dealt with the challenge head on and have gone back to school to obtain an education to provide their children with opportunities advantages that they could not have been afforded. And there are still single mothers working, sometimes with more than one job to provide their children with a life better than their own. And then there are those who live in despair because for them it is an endless cycle of poverty, crime and lack of basic essentials. Their spirits have been broken and hope is lost, so they fight daily just to put their feet on the ground and continue. Although I believe that Black women on a whole have progressed it is not enough to break a cycle.
In looking back thirty-eight years later, how has being in the Temple shaped your world view about social injustice, good and bad?
Looking back over the last thirty-eight years, I felt that we were headed in the right direction, until recently. One of my biggest concerns is the Prison Industrial Complex which my eldest son has been a part of for most of his life [Wilson’s son Jakari was only two-years old when he and his mom escaped from Jonestown]. So justice is few and far between. There is still a severe imbalance in the scale of justice. The freedoms that our ancestors won before, during and after the civil rights era are about to be overturned by the vote of November 8th.
That Wednesday morning after the election I felt a deep sadness, nausea and fear about what our nation could become. I could barely get up and head to work. I reflected on the conditions that brought and kept people dedicated to Jim Jones. Jim Jones only existed because we allowed him to.
In Trump, we have a person who is preaching law and order and it is not the law and order of peace. I believe what just occurred is going to set us back decades unless people stand up for what is right. Now is the time for us to stand together by volunteering with organizations that align with your passion to be able to garner voices to change what has just happened. This is not a Kumbaya moment. What I’m witnessing is more frightening than Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Another really, really evil version of Jim Jones was just elected to the White House and with real POWER. This is the same environment that caused so many to seek refuge in Peoples Temple, and, eventually, Jonestown.