Introducing Our Volunteers: Sarah Rex

The information in this article comes from genealogical research conducted by Sarah Rex on senior citizens and single individuals living in Jonestown, and an interview conducted 6 May 2024 by Rebecca Moore.

Sarah Rex came to Jonestown through her interest in true crime stories, but what struck her from the outset was that most of the histories of Peoples Temple focused almost exclusively on its leader Jim Jones. Lost in the accounts were the stories of Temple members, especially their commitments to racial justice and social equality, commitments which she shared. She began her own independent investigations, and the more she learned, the more she realized, as she put it, “that I might have gotten caught up in Peoples Temple.”

This prompted her to think about researching and documenting the lives of the senior citizens who lived and died in Jonestown, particularly the numerous older Black women. “I expected to go into it and not find much, judging by the fact that we didn’t have their maiden names.” She discovered that by tracking down where people were born and where they moved, she was able “to see the Great Migration in real time, moving north and west.” (The Great Migration refers to the exodus of African Americans between 1910 and 1970 out of the rural South to the urban North seeking safety from violence and racism as well as employment opportunity.) “The reason there were so many single seniors in the Temple was because of the Great Migration, and here was the evidence.”

But another surprise Sarah encountered was that many of the individuals previously identified as being single did in fact have Temple family members living either in Jonestown or back in California. “I realized there were a lot of so-called singles who actually had Temple connections,” she observes. Moreover, she discovered that seniors created new ties with others in Jonestown by virtue of their common origins in the South, the fact that they roomed together at the project, and frequently did similar jobs for the community. “Reading Annie [Moore’s] letter was the first time, I realized that it was really a community, not just a bunch of individuals.”

Sarah’s extensive research resulted in discovery of information on gender, race, place of birth, marital status, residence in Jonestown, and occupation in Jonestown of those residents born before 1930—143 total, of whom 95.2 percent were African American and 92.5 percent were female. She provides more than numbers, though, providing individual histories of people like Inez Stricklin Conedy, Lucille Payney, and Earl Luches Johnson, based upon research she conducted through Ancestry.Com, FindAGrave.Com, and Temple records and personal remembrances posted to the Jonestown website. “Their personalities seem to shine through.”

This research has brought Sarah into contact with family members, both through Ancestry.Com and through surviving Temple members. “I was lucky enough to talk with the grandson of Earl Joseph Luches Johnson, who spent summers with his grandparents.” The grandson had a passport and was ready to move to Jonestown, since he had a number of family members living in Jonestown. She finds that most people she contacts are very understanding. “I’ve met a lot of relatives and people in the survivor community, and people have been wonderful—helpful and very kind.”

Her experience as a genealogical researcher has been crucial in correcting and expanding the Family Trees and the short biographies on the Who Died page for the Jonestown website. It has also inspired her to take on a much more ambitious project, to chronicle the lives of the residents of Jonestown. Not just the well-known ones. Absolutely everyone.

“There have been days when it was rough,” she admits of her research, “hitting a brick wall. . . . Even the information gets heavy and you feel like you start to know people.” She adds, “at times it’s frustrating and sad as well.” But Sarah’s desire to humanize and memorialize those who lived and died in Jonestown carry her through gloomy days. “We know everything about Jim Jones but not nearly enough about the people themselves. . . . I decided to take it on myself to write about the people rather than Jones.”

Currently in the writing stage, the project is formatted a bit like a high school yearbook, with pages devoted to individuals and families that will include photographs, remembrances, and other information gleaned both from her genealogical research and from documents on this website.

Sarah Rex lives with her husband and two daughters near Johnstown in western Pennsylvania. She grew up in Johnstown, an old steel town, where “not much has changed since I was born in 1993.” A diagnosis of epilepsy has prevented her from continuing her work as a Certified Nursing Assistant. A fulltime mother now, she homeschools her daughters Ava and Evelyn. And, of course, she volunteers for the Jonestown website.