Sometimes people ask me what I am still doing there on the lower level of the California Historical Society, immersed in one of the 150 cartons of paper that make up the Peoples Temple Archive and related collections. “I’m figuring out the related part,” is what I want to say, but I usually reply, “I’m processing the papers, getting them in order.”
The “related collections” that I am working on are MS 3801, papers that were gathered in Guyana after Jonestown and turned over to the FBI; MS 3802, the papers from the Moore family; MS 3803, the materials that John R. Hall used for his book, Gone from the Promised Land; and MS 4062, a collection of correspondence and news clippings from the family of Ross E. Case, who was an associate minister in the Temple in the 1960’s.
After surveying the files and making a plan for what order to put them in — if they are not already in order — I write summaries about each collection in formats that are accessible to researchers from all walks of life: scholars, students, journalists, and relatives. In the “big” collection (130 cartons!), also known as MS 3800, The Peoples Temple Archives, there are some smaller projects in the works, like cataloguing the Peoples Temple newspaper, the Peoples Forum, and revising the 1985 finding guide.
This summer, in addition to working with the manuscript files, I started working with the photographs in the collection. My goal for the months ahead is to get the paperwork finished, so I can spend more time with the photographs. More than 3,000 passport and membership photographs are currently being indexed at CHS. It’s true that “Every picture tells a story,” and the pictures in these files tell a lot of stories. The photographs share with us the faces of the people we’ve lost and people who are part of this unique history.
With 2003 bringing us the 25th anniversary of Jonestown, this processing work is a timely project for the renewed interest in the archives. It is an honor to be able to do it.
(Ed. Note: Ms. Stephenson continues her volunteer work to organize the CHS collections on Peoples Temple.)