The Campaign for the New Jonestown Memorial: A Brief History

by Fielding M. McGehee III

(Editor’s note: The writer of this article, in addition to being the co-manager of this site and co-editor of the jonestown report, was one of the three members of the Jonestown Memorial Fund.)

On May 29, 2011, approximately 150 Jonestown survivors, former members of Peoples Temple, relatives of the Jonestown dead, and friends gathered during a Memorial Day service at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California to dedicate a monument to those who died on November 18, 1978.

The memorial itself consists of four granite plaques laid side-by-side flat on the hillside where 409 unidentified and unclaimed bodies from the Jonestown tragedy rest on a mass grave.

The names of all 918 people who died that day – 909 in Jonestown, five at the Port Kaituma airstrip (including Rep. Leo Ryan and three members of the news media accompanying Ryan on the congressional visit), and four in the Temple’s house at Lamaha Gardens in Georgetown – are listed in alphabetical order on the plaques.

The plaques complement the marker placed by the Guyana Emergency Relief Committee in May 1979, almost exactly 32 years earlier. The hillside has been the site of memorial services led by Rev. Jynona Norwood on every anniversary of the deaths since 1979. In more recent years, a number of former Temple members and family members have held a second service later in the day of November 18.

The new markers were enhanced by the work of Evergreen Cemetery itself, which donated thousands of dollars worth of materials and labor to the project. Rather than a grassy slope with no real indication of the size of the mass grave, the hillside has been transformed into a memorial, with low walls and iron railings indicating its boundaries. The ground has also been leveled, and the plaques are widely separated, all in an effort to allow wheelchair and handicapped access to the panels.

The dedication service consisted of the formal program and an open mike portion. The press coverage of the dedication service – and the months leading up to it – appears here. The following is a brief history of the campaign itself.

Committee started

The May 29 dedication service was the culmination of a year’s worth of work by the Jonestown Memorial Fund. Formed during the summer of 2010, the committee limited itself to one single task: to honor the people who died in Jonestown by bringing the promise of a memorial site into reality. The committee consisted of three people: John Cobb and Jim Jones Jr., two Jonestown survivors who each lost numerous relatives on November 18; and Fielding M. McGehee III, whose wife Rebecca Moore lost two sisters and a nephew.

The three members of the committee signed a contract with Evergreen Cemetery in late 2010 to purchase the granite stones – hewn from a quarry in China – to pay for their engraving by a monument company, and to work with the cemetery itself in the creation of the memorial. The initial contract for $15,000 – the funding of which had been guaranteed by an anonymous donor – was structured to be paid off in three installments. The contract stipulated that the work would be completed no later than November 18, 2011, about a year after its signing.

The campaign first came to public attention on November 18, 2010, when members of the Jonestown Memorial Fund and Ron Haulman, representing Evergreen, unveiled the tentative plans during the second memorial service of the day.

Fundraising

Once the contract was signed, the committee’s task of raising the money for the memorial began. In early January 2011, members of the committee mailed approximately 400 letters to former Temple members and relatives; scholars and academics who had studied the Temple over the years; artists, playwrights and documentarians who had interpreted the Temple in a variety of media; and others. The letter reiterated the short duration of the campaign and promised that fundraising efforts would end upon realization of its goal.

The campaign was startling in its success. On January 31 – approximately three weeks after the first appeal letter was mailed – the committee received the donation that put it past the initial $15,000 for the contracted memorial stones. The committee decided to allow the campaign to stay open long enough to recover out-of-pocket expenses for its work – primarily printing, postage and transportation – and to underwrite the costs of the dedication service itself and the celebratory party afterwards.

At the end of March, the Jonestown Memorial Fund closed its bank account and returned the checks which arrived after that time. A few weeks later, the committee closed its post office box in San Leandro. By that time, it had raised more than $20,000 from more than 120 individuals and families. Aside from one large donation, the range of contributions was from five dollars to one thousand dollars.

Name verification

02-03_thumbThe second principal task of the committee was to make every effort to ensure that the names to be engraved on the stones were as accurate as possible. Working from the Who Died list on this website, the committee contacted as many relatives as it could find to verify the spellings of names. It also worked in cooperation with the California Historical Society, which maintains the single largest collection of Temple papers, including the Temple’s membership files.

The task turned out to be a complicated one, for several reasons.

• Many people who died in Guyana – especially elderly black people who had been born in rural counties in Southern states – didn’t have birth certificates, so there was no definitive source on the spelling of their names. In a number of cases, the decision was based upon how the member spelled his or her own name most often.

• A number of elderly black women had also come to the Temple via Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement, and were known by the names they had adopted there. Their birth names were initially difficult to ascertain with certainty.

• A number of people in Jonestown took on Swahili names, but even before then, many black parents expressed their pride in their roots by giving African names to their children who ended up in Jonestown. The spelling of some of these names was unfamiliar to people in the Temple who compiled lists of Jonestown emigrants, and much more so to federal agencies tasked with creating a list of the people who died in the tragedy.

• A number of women who married several times elected to keep or shed their previous names as part of their official name, sometimes placing their maiden name in a seemingly-random order. Several children born to earlier marriages were known by several last names as well.

• Several people were known in the Temple by names that turned out to be nicknames, making their given names unknown even to their closest friends in Jonestown.

• Finally, some people just couldn’t spell.

Nevertheless, the list of names on the memorial stones – and presented as an insert to the dedication service program – represents the most complete and accurate list ever created. Its final change came in early April 2011, about six weeks before the dedication service, as Amador Memorial Company was in the process of engraving names.

The stones were laid at the site – which Evergreen had upgraded – on May 9, 2011. Simultaneously, the Jonestown Memorial Fund announced plans for the dedication service on Sunday, May 29, during the Memorial Day weekend.

Opposition

The campaign did meet some opposition, almost exclusively in the form of Rev. Jynona Norwood, who had intended to erect her own memorial on the same site. The members of the Jonestown Memorial Fund recognized that this effort had been underway for 30 years, and considered that at great length before deciding to go ahead with its own campaign. In the end, though, it was the committee’s realization that Norwood’s plans was based upon a proposed monument which would have not met Evergreen’s approval, that the cost of the monument was several fold over what she had raised in the previous 30 years, and that she had no apparent strategy to complete her ambitious fundraising efforts.

Dr. Norwood expressed her opposition on many occasions, beginning with her response on November 18, 2010 to the news of the second campaign, as reported in an AP story. She also held a press conference at Evergreen Cemetery in late February 2011 to criticize both the efforts of the Jonestown Memorial Fund and the role of Evergreen Cemetery in the process. A news story of that press conference appears here; an article by a freelance reporter who attended the conference appears here. Her continued expression of opposition is also available at her website.

Her most serious challenge came in a lawsuit, filed against Evergreen Cemetery and two of its officers – Buck Kamphausen and Ron Haulman – on May 10, the day after the Jonestown Memorial Fund announced the completion of the memorial. The suit alleged that the cemetery breached its contract with Norwood by allowing the second contract to go forward. In successive hearings, Norwood sought an immediate injunction against further work on the site and – when that failed, in large part because the work was complete – sought an injunction against the dedication service planned for May 29. She also requested that the court order the removal of the plaques or – barring that – removal of the name of Temple leader Jim Jones from the listing on the stones. The second request for injunction failed, and the service went forward.

The main issue in the lawsuit revolved around the ownership of the memorial site. Responding to the allegations of the suit, Evergreen claimed that Norwood did not have a contract for a monument at the site and, by extension, could not then dictate what may or may not be done there.

While the lawsuit revolved around contract issues, the point of opposition most frequently raised was the new monument’s inclusion of the name of Jim Jones. Norwood insisted emphatically that including the name of the man most responsible for the deaths in Jonestown is akin to placing Adolf Hitler’s name on Holocaust memorials. The committee maintained it presented the plaques as a historical document which will survive long after all people associated with the tragedy of 1978 – and their passions – have died. Without affixing responsibility for the events of the day or including any other differentiation among them, the names appearing in alphabetical order list all 918 names. Several discussions over whether Jones’ name should have been included appear here.

The lawsuit was dismissed in May 2014, and a state appeals court rejected lead plaintiff Jynona Norwood move to overturn the lower court decision. In early 2015, the court turned down Dr. Norwood’s last efforts to keep the case alive.

Last modified on January 2nd, 2016.
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