On the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, San Francisco’s Fillmore community reflected on the many tragedies endured, and potential triumphs ahead.
Last month, San Francisco's Western Addition paid homage to the victims of the 1978 Jonestown massacre, nearly a death-blow to a neighborhood defined by its African American residents and rich cultural history, a ”Harlem of the West.” But this both solemn and joyous occasion was also a rebirth of efforts to preserve and build on that community's heritage.
There is a reason that the Phoenix, the mythical bird that renews its vitality by plunging into fire, is part of the heraldry of San Francisco. Ever since the city's formal birth in the 1850s, it has suffered from disasters and had to renew itself. Not all of these disasters were natural.
When San Francisco’s political elite added a new chapter to the City’s racist history through so-called redevelopment and “urban renewal,” displacing thousands of lower-income African-American residents that had arrived eagerly in the midst of the postwar industrial boom, it probably did not bargain on a charlatan coming in and further victimizing that community in a spectacular and horrifying tragedy. Rising through the ranks of the political mainstream, cult leader Jim Jones and his People’s Temple symbolized the chaos and anomie of 1970s politics, both for San Francisco and the rest of the country.
After Jones led a mass exodus into the jungles of Guyana, the world had to bear witness to one of the largest mass murders in recent history, and, by some estimates, "the largest single loss of American civilian lives by deliberate act until September 11, 2001." At first labeled a "mass suicide" by the media, the massacre claimed almost a thousand lives.
While some may try hard to do so, history cannot be erased. It can, however, be learned from.
Part of the Jonestown story is that Jones was able to ingratiate himself, with San Francisco's media and political leaders, essentially becoming part of the city's progressive political establishment, largely free of scrutiny. When the scrutiny did come, it was too late.
San Francisco has repeatedly tried and failed to live down the memory of Jonestown. After the tragedy, the People's Temple headquarters on Geary Boulevard remained empty and derelict until it was demolished after having suffered damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The lot on which it stood then remained empty, almost as if it were salted earth, for more than another decade until the US Post Office built a facility there.
Almost half the victims of the Jonestown massacre are buried in a mass grave in Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery – the only one that would accept them. Shame and infighting prevented a proper memorial to the victims from being placed there until 2011. Meanwhile, any proper memorialization continued to remain absent from San Francisco.
This past November 18 – 40 years to the day after the massacre, the New Community Leadership Foundation, San Francisco Beautiful, and a number of other public and private partners held “Homecoming: a Day of Atonement in the Fillmore, reclaiming heritage in San Francisco 40 years after Jonestown", an hour of remembrance in spoken word, sermon, and song. Among those in attendance were District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, SFPD chief Bill Scott, and other community leaders.
The event took place at the Fillmore Heritage Center, on the site of the former Yoshi’s jazz club, a project designed designed to help revitalize the ailing Fillmore commercial corridor. The center will now be operating under the auspices of NCLF with help from San Francisco Beautiful and the City. Part of the deal, overseen by Mayor London Breed’s and Supervisor Vallie Brown’s offices, includes a grant from the Department of Recreation and Parks to renovate the mini park at Fillmore and Turk streets, to include a memorial wall to the Jonestown victims.
“This day is important because it allows us to have some clear reflection about what went wrong. It gives us the opportunity for each individual, each department head and agency to reflect on what we could have done differently. My sole purpose in coming today is to make sure that young people do not become victims,” says Yulanda Williams, an SFPD Lieutenant and one of the speakers at the event.
In addition to being current president of Officers for Justice, Williams is a Jonestown survivor, having witnessed the People’s Temple exert its terrible influence on her family and friends at the tender age of 12. She also stressed the importance of understanding the massacre and the events leading up to it within the context of an ongoing disenfranchisement of African-Americans.
“Jim Jones actually helped and hastened the elimination of the black community in the Western Addition and the Bayview,” she said. “Because drugs were so rampant during that time in the community, many older adults gave up on seeing a future for themselves or their children, so for many of us, Jonestown seemed to offer an opportunity for a new beginning away from that… That's why so many people were simply willing to sign over power of attorney for their property to Jones, [who sold their property at cut rate prices, mainly to whites]” Williams explained.
“My parents lost one house, and they were ready to sign over another house in Potrero Hill, but my father came back to town and he was able to intervene.”
Williams is working with fellow survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson and educator Sikivu Hutchinson, who also spoke at the event, on blackjonestown.org, a website dedicated to amplifying the voices of African American victims and survivors.
Hutchinson also emphasized how the massacre exacerbated an ongoing process of oppression: “75% of those who died at Jonestown were black, 47% of those who died were black women, and their voices have not been heard,” she said. “What we've seen over the past four decades is been a whole array of media, books, documentaries, novels and treatments, on People’s Temple primarily from a Eurocentric perspective. That does not in any shape or form capture the historical connection to the Great Migration for example, the socioeconomic disenfranchisement that compelled them to become involved with the People's Temple, to them deeding their property, to donating their whole incomes, their sweat equity in building up the People's Temple movement.”
Others on stage included USF Politics Professor James Taylor, who also emceed the program along with NCLF President Jameel Patterson; former Supervisor and current NAACP chapter president Rev. Amos Brown, Third Union Baptist Church Pastor Arnold Townsend, and performers including Suga-T, Telly Mac, and Hugh EMC.
The event also marks a significant development for NCLF, a group founded in 2012 by Western Addition native and violence prevention activist Eli Crawford, to take a new approach towards advocacy for the city's African-American community.
Lilly Robinson Trezvant is Vice President of the organization, and grew up in the Fillmore with Eli Crawford. She came to San Francisco in 1947 with her grandmother to join her father, who had come from Galveston, Texas to work on the waterfront during the war. Her family was actually displaced twice by redevelopment, having to move to the Outer Mission, then Potrero Hill. She now lives in the Lakeview District.
Trezvant describes her experience growing up in the city and how it informs her activism at NCLF: “My children were born and raised here. And unfortunately, due to the circumstances of San Francisco, they couldn't remain here,” Robinson said. “This is all because in order to get jobs and do the things they wanted to do, they couldn't stay here. I feel that's very bad because a lot of black people migrated here to San Francisco during the war and helped establish the city to be what it is, the blues and jazz came with the people. They established themselves. They built homes. They started businesses,” she explained. “I'm very proud of the fact that my father was one of those people.”
Majeid Crawford, NCLF’s Communications Director, elaborated: “We want to use these two important spaces to give the community a reason for walking down Fillmore Street,” he said. “It's about empowering the black community that's been disenfranchised, but it's also about racial harmony, because one of the things people forget is that during the 50s, black and white people came together in the Fillmore. It wasn't a movement, it was the authentic spirit of all the cultures wanting to come together and have organic racial harmony in the neighborhood… and that's what we aim to bring back.”
“We want to empower the black community with a space as well as with the mini park as well as other initiatives,” Crawford continued. “One of the things we're proud of is that we have a wide range of people from the community – we have a 21-year-old who goes to USF, to Lily Robinson who's in her 70s. Our board is composed of people spanning all the different generations, from young to old.”
The younger Crawford also addressed the effect of Jonestown on his experience growing up in a post-redevelopment Fillmore: “I was born in this neighborhood in ’72. I wasn’t a witness to Jonestown, but I grew up understanding the vacuum it created in this neighborhood – the economic and residential base was completely ripped out of this neighborhood, first by urban renewal, but what broke the camel’s back was when 900 people from this community died in Guyana. I was raised in the aftermath of that disaster. The epidemic of violence that you see in this neighborhood, the lack of role models that you see in this neighborhood, the flight of the middle class from this neighborhood, is what I was left with. Jonestown left my community devastated, and as a young person growing up I was faced with the trauma, of the lack of leadership in our neighborhood, of the violence in the neighborhood, the lack of economic opportunities, so I see myself as a victim from a community perspective of what took place at Jonestown.”
Work on the Fillmore Heritage Center and mini-park is ongoing. The center aims to be a venue for community performances and discussion, as well as a refuge from the street. Chess boards were available in the center’s outer lounge.
SF Beautiful Executive Director Darcy Brown echoed Patterson’s desire, articulated in an invocation before the event, to use these new resources to “unite the city:”
“Unite the city, that's basically what we’re doing here. We are San Francisco, this neighborhood is our neighborhood, its history is our history,” Brown said. “We want to bring some closure to that open wound, to embrace it as part of our city's history which has been denied for 40 years, and move forward. We will be raising money for a permanently installed memorial wall at the park, which there will be a design competition for, with the names of the victims, to provide a continuing opportunity for remembrance and learning, so that we never have another Jonestown again.”
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