The “Other” Jim Jones:
Rabbi David Hill, House of Israel, and Black American Religion in the Age of Peoples Temple

by Nishani Frazier

What we know about the American presence in Guyana generally centers on the tragic events of November 18, 1978. Peoples Temple was known for its sizable black American membership and stood as the largest entering American expatriate community. Jones’ congregation sought to create an unfettered, unmolested revolutionary socialist utopia in the bush land interior of Guyana. Supported by the Guyanese government, Peoples Temple owed much of its early success to Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s support. As a result, it tended not to rattle its sponsor despite cries among many that Burnham’s administration was a dictatorship.

However, few know Guyana as a site for black American political dissidents or as a space for other black religious groups seeking equality and socialist nirvana. Prominent among these political dissenters and spiritual leaders was a man by the name of Rabbi David Hill (also known as Edward Washington), minister for the House of Israel. Unlike Jones, Hill/Washington did not always avoid Guyanese politics. While Peoples Temple set about creating heaven on earth Rabbi David Hill/Washington became deeply involved in the country’s political culture.

Rabbi David Hill, also known as a Cleveland Black Power leader, skipped bail and escaped charges of extortion, some of which were connected to his protest politics against discrimination in McDonald’s franchise ownership. It is unclear how he decided on Guyana, and the circumstances of how he got to Guyana are questionable.[1] He arrived in Guyana sometime around 1972, almost two years before the creation of Jonestown. Upon his arrival in Guyana, Rabbi David Hill became Rabbi Edward Washington.

In Guyana, and even before his arrival there, Hill was no mere religious leader. In fact, Rabbi Hill had many faces. Civil rights activists in Cleveland, Ohio praised him as the impetus for the successful black power protest against the fast food giant McDonald’s. Other black Clevelanders snickered with tales of Hill the trickster figure, perhaps better worded as the extortionist. Afro-Guyanese knew him as Rabbi Edward Washington, leader of the religious group House of Israel whose plantain chips, like the Nation of Islam’s bean pie, became a synonymous symbol of black economic independence.
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Despite the many and varied personas of Rabbi Hill, the members of his religious sect, House of Israel, paint a far different picture of their spiritual guide. His mostly Guyanese followers christened him King Elijah, their beloved leader whose rhetoric of black nationalist tinged spirituality gave them a vision of uplift and empowerment. It was a lesson and memory they held dear long after his death and despite accusations about his more nefarious character.

In contrast, anti-Burnham political activists who encountered Hill, described yet another persona. Diverging from Jim Jones’ strategy of an insular community, Hill extended his reach beyond religion and reached great political heights by forging close ties to Forbes Burnham and his political party the People’s National Congress (PNC). As Jim Jones retreated to the interior, Hill remained in the urban center crafting and maneuvering around the often-prickly conflicts within Guyanese politics. In the process, Hill became known as a presidential henchman whose pro-PNC activities led to strike breaks and the death of Catholic Jesuit priest and opposition party supporter, Father Bernard Darke.

How Hill became tied to the Burnham government during this period is unknown.[2] Hill’s theological teachings and Burnham’s rhetorical support of black power were more than a little similar, however. Burnham, leader of the PNC, had come into power through a coalition against the opposition party, PPP (People’s Progressive Party) led by Cheddi Jagan. Both parties were heavily aligned by ethnicity and race with the PPP being predominantly Indo-Guyanese, and the PNC being mostly Afro-Guyanese. In order to obtain power, numerically outnumbered PNC had to form an alliance with the mostly conservative and Euro/Sino/Iberio-Guyanese party, United Force. However, in subsequent years, PNC maintained its power and its position in government through voter fraud and intimidation.

Both Hill, and later Jim Jones, stepped into a backdrop of attacks against opposition parties,strike breaking, intimidations, and government assassinations of anti-Burnham figures like the well-known scholar activist Walter Rodney. To a certain degree, Jim Jones was removed from the political melee taking place. The Temple’s transformation of the interior region of the country served Burnham’s socialist style of economic development, raised his international stature as an active sponsor for victims persecuted by racist and colonial governments, and expanded his reach outside the urban spaces of Guyana.

Despite the calculating, sometimes unscrupulous, behavior of the PNC and Burnham, Peoples Temple went about the business of its community while Hill became embroiled in maintaining the PNC’s control of the Guyanese government. Although most scholars assumed this support to be unflinching, in reality, the House of Israel had a complex relationship with the PNC. Undeniably, it operated as the PNC’s party arm. House of Israel was known to support the government by becoming strike laborers,attending pro-government rallies and intimidating or disrupting opposition party meetings. In addition, a House of Israel member did indeed kill journalist Father Darke of the opposition paper Catholic Standard, though the organization noted that it was an accidental event in which an out of control “hot head” member acted outside the parameters of House of Israel’s edict.[3] Others, of course, would beg to disagree.

Still, House of Israel members advocated for Burnham for two reasons. First, many members, including Rabbi Hill, felt it was their duty to support a black government against the efforts of the Indo-Guyanese to seize control. Viewed by many in the country as an elite layer akin to whites, domination by the Indo-Guyanese was of particular concern. Even when black power advocate Stokely Carmichael was invited to Guyana, his speech alluded to as much. Coming from the political framework of the United States of two conflicting races, Rabbi Hill read the racial divisions between the two groups in the same way.

Second, and unknown to many, Washington/Hill had purportedly been threatened with deportation back to the United States.[4] As such, Washington was caught between acting the good guest and all that might entail or jail. The relationship with the PNC became more strained after the death of Father Darke. Although the member went unpunished for a number of years, the death of Father Darke stained House of Israel’s efforts to present itself as a politically active religious group and put it squarely in the box of being considered a tool of the PNC and the dictatorship of Burnham.

Tool of the PNC or active participant, the House of Israel was still at its center a religious organization – a fact historians fail to engage on any level. House of Israel members actually described themselves as a nation with its own religion. It is a religion centered on a Judaic faith, but with a belief that African people are the Israelites of the bible, and thus the true chosen people of God. The House of Israel also incorporated into its dogma aspects of new age religion, which included a belief in UFO’s, spiritual healing, and visions. In fact, most members’ visions centered on the image of Rabbi Hill. The choice of Hill as the subject of vision had much to do with who he was to the members of the House of Israel. To those who loved and followed Rabbi Hill, he was not a con-man. He was not the black power activist, and he was certainly not a henchman of the PNC.

Rabbi Hill was King Elijah – God’s prophet in human form.[5] Members would report seeing visions of his face before joining House of Israel and experiencing spiritual healings, which, as well as his mysterious knowledge about their lives, served as proof of his other worldliness. That God sent a short, pudgy black man to lift up African people even in the far off corners of Guyana said less about them and more about the limited thinking of outsiders who believed God could only send one, merely in the form of Jesus, solely in the Middle East, and not as an African.

Despite this alternate view of spirituality and religion, members were still considered among Guyanese people as part of a crazy cult. It was a point driven home by the derisive rhymes of young children who would follow members with the lines,

“If you see me, don’t talk to me
Rabbi People, don’t wear panty.”

The cult image was hardly limited to Guyanese children and their guardians. Apprehensions over Rabbi Hill’s religious presence in Guyana became obsessive after 1978 with the mass death of over 900 Peoples Temple members. Media spotlighted Hill and the House of Israel as the next possible “Peoples Temple.”

In fact, newspapers around the world from Montreal Gazette to the Virgin Island Daily News featured pieces on the “new” Jim Jones cult in Guyana with claims that his followers numbered in the thousands (apx. 8000) and that they would do anything he asked – including killing themselves. Public fear abound that another Jim Jones incident was on the horizon. Of course, ever the propagandist, Hill made sure to note that he would never ask such a thing, only that his parishioners were willing to follow all that he commanded. Still,speculation was enough to regain the attention of the FBI and to motivate the arrival of an ABC news crew to see the “second” Jim Jones.

By the time news crews left Guyana, Rabbi Hill was tagged as a U.S. criminal whose cult activities in Guyana would unfold to become another, perhaps larger tragedy. Attention remained on Hill well into the early 1980s. However, Hill’s fortunes rose and fell with the Burnham government. With the 1985 death of Prime Minister Burnham, Hill was left open to attack and repudiation. Hill and top religious leaders eventually went to prison and were released in the 90s. Hill returned to the United States and settled in Newark, New Jersey where he died in 2001.

(Nishani Frazier is a Professor of History at Miami University. Her current writing project is a history of civil rights in Cleveland, Ohio. Her scholarship also includes oral history, African American history, and dissident religious groups. For comments or additional information and sources, contact her at frazien@muohio.edu.)

Footnotes


[1] It is believed that Rabbi Hill escaped through a network of activists. There are a number of oral histories (in author’s possession) and papers, which refer to Hill’s arrival in Guyana. The clearest source comes from the Julian Mayfield Papers at Schomburg Research Center in New York City.

[2] Although Burnham issued an open invitation to black political prisoners, not all those who came had close ties.

[3] Rabbi Aswad, interview by Nishani Frazier, Georgetown, Guyana, 2010.

[4] Rabbi Aswad, interview by Nishani Frazier, Georgetown, Guyana, 2010.

[5] King Elijah is a prophet in the Old Testament’s Book of Kings (first). Elijah is a prophet teacher of God and foreshadows the future. He is also ever living and the only prophet to return. Elijah is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the greatest of Old Testament prophets. Elisha, the prophet who follows Elijah and receives a double portion of his spirit, performs the miracles which Rabbi Hill’s parishioners claimed to receive. This included the raising of the dead, the healing of the sick and the exorcism of demons. Thus, Rabbi Hill was a combined persona of Prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Last modified on December 6th, 2013.
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