A Thousand Lives: ExcerptS

Tommy Hyacinth Stanley Edith


Hyacinth Thrash first heard about Jim Jones in 1955, when she was 50.
    At the time she was childless, twice divorced, and living with her younger sister, Zipporah Edwards, in Indianapolis. The women were raised Baptist, and had later converted to Pentecostalism, but in 1955, they were between churches, having quit their last church after a new preacher arrived and immediately demanded a larger salary from his working class congregation.
    The sisters watched church television instead. Televangelism was brand new, and although some people criticized it as a poor substitute for lazy believers, it was the perfect solution for Hy and Zippy, who revered God but couldn't say the same for his pitchmen. If a TV pastor offended them, they could just turn him off.
    When Zip saw Jones preaching on local television channel, she thought Jones was a fine speaker, but what excited her more, that Sunday, was his choir. There they stood in matching blue satin robes, blacks and whites side by side like keys on a piano, singing her favorite hymns. Zippy had never seen the likes of it.
    "I found my church!" she shouted. She got up and pulled Hyacinth into the room. As they watched the service, a longing bloomed in them; they decided to visit Peoples Temple the following Sunday.

    Born in a whistle-stop town deep in Alabama, the sisters had grown up in a close-knit family. Their father had steady work as a train cook, and their mother cleaned houses for white people. (Hyacinth was named by one of her mother's employers). They wore flour-sack dresses, but never went hungry.
Although their household was harmonious, Hyacinth noticed from a young age that things shifted whenever she stepped off their yard. The sign outside a neighboring town read: "We don't allow no niggers this town. You better get out before the sun goes down and if you can't read, better get out anyhow." Only landholders could vote, perpetuating white power. She ran into former slaves who still bore the name of their ex master branded onto their backs.
    When she was in grade school, a family friend was lynched. A group of white men followed him through town, taunting, and trying to incite him. When they kicked him in the buttocks, he could stand it no longer and lunged at his assailants. They strung him up from a tree as a warning to other so-called insolent blacks.
"Papa, isn't there a better place?" Hyacinth repeatedly asked her father. He was reluctant to leave their farm and heritage, but the lynching persuaded him that no African American was safe in the South. And so in 1918, the family boarded a train to join the Great Migration of two million blacks who left the Jim Crow South searching for better lives in the North. As Hyacinth later wrote, "After the Civil War, we was freed but we wasn't free." Their train was segregated all the way to Kentucky. Among the family's possessions was a cherished biography of President Abraham Lincoln.
    They settled in Indianapolis with the help of relatives who'd gone before. Although 13-year-old Hyacinth was eager to reap the North's promise, her subpar education held her back. In her Alabama town, black children only attended school in the winter, so that they could work the fields during the growing season. She was ashamed of her learning deficit, and rather than be stuck in a class with younger kids, she dropped out of school altogether, after 9th grade. She held a series of unskilled jobs: baby-sitting, cleaning, operating the elevator at the Indiana State House, and married twice, to unfaithful men. She was heartbroken to learn she couldn't have children.
In 1951, when Hy was 46, and Zip, who'd never married, was 42, they'd saved enough money to buy a modest two-family home in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood of Indianapolis, an area that was forced to integrate by court order. They took in boarders to make their mortgage payments.  
    Although Indianapolis was less overtly racist than the South, it was by no means an egalitarian city. As soon as black families started moving into the neighborhood, for-sale signs lined the streets. By the time the sisters arrived, the lone white holdouts lived next door. The middle-aged couple refused to talk to the sisters. If they happened to be sitting on their porch when Hy or Zippy came out to sit on theirs, they'd abruptly go back inside.
    So, on that Sunday morning when Zipporah turned on the television and saw a white man inviting believers of any color to visit his church, she was astonished and thrilled. Reverend Jones described Peoples Temples a church whose "door is open so wide that all races, creeds, and colors find a hearty welcome to come in relax, meditate, and worship God." Soon afterward, the sisters donned their best dresses and white cotton gloves, and took a streetcar to Jones's church.
    They discovered the television had not lied. Not only was the choir integrated; the pews were, too. The usher marched them up the center aisle to the front, where the white congregants greeted them warmly. It felt like a homecoming. The joyfully serene atmosphere was redolent of their girlhoods: Here were the same tidy pews, the soulful organ voluntary, the wafts of perfume and hair pomade, the children dolled up and peering over the seat backs. Here were the hymns they knew and loved. Here was a handsome young white minister preaching in a gospel cadence, afire with the Lord and racial equality. Praise God, hallelujah.