A memorial to Jonestown at last

The San Francisco Chronicle/November 17, 2008

This country proudly fills plazas and parks with memorials to mark the past. History and those that made it get their due in bronze, granite, and here-lies inscriptions.

But what happens to nearly a thousand Americans who died in a faraway place, nearly all of them poor, idealistic and cut off from the mainstream? For the followers of Jim Jones who died in a failing plantation in Guyana, the answer is nothing. Their faces, names and stories are forgotten. A sorry chapter in human history is never pondered because it's never encountered.

For Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 family members in the mass killings, it's a result that must change. She's the driving force behind plans for a marble memorial to those who died 30 years ago, come tomorrow. At the Evergreen Cemetery at the foot of the Oakland hills, she plans to debut the first stages of a sweeping monument to commemorate the dead.

After several cemeteries refused, Evergreen accepted the unclaimed remains of the Jonestown dead. The bodies, buried two deep in places, lie on a sloping hillside marked by a no-frills gray headstone. Four Coke bottles holding flowers sit beneath the marker with a pair of wispy rose bushes alongside.

Generous as Evergreen has been, it's time for something more. That's where Norwood, a hummingbird package of energy and purpose, comes in. A church pastor in Southern California, she's also the head cheerleader and fundraiser for a cause she acknowledges carries mostly "shame and stigma."

Her master plan calls for seven marble panels in a design borrowed from the striking Vietnam memorial in Washington. Six of the panels will be 3 1/2-feet high and bear the names of 917 who died in Guyana. It's a roster that includes everybody save one. "Jim Jones' name won't be on it," she said.

At the center will be a large red heart to note Norwood's special message: Along with the adults, there were some 400 children who died. Many of them are buried unnamed in tiny caskets on the Oakland hillside, their remains too hard to identify precisely.

Call it gaudy, over the top and emphatic - but the point is clear to Norwood. The children, she says, were "double victims," forced to die when their parents, doomed themselves, poisoned them on Jones' orders. "These children could be scientists, teachers, our leaders today if they hadn't been killed," she said.

Norwood is a combative counterweight to the shrug-shoulder views of Jonestown. Didn't they all go along with the mad preacher and kill themselves? Wasn't it just a brainwashed cult that lost its mind? No, she says, to these stereotypes.

Back in the 1970s, she battled Jones, pulling her son out while her mother, aunts, uncles and cousins stayed. "He was a bully," she said. He kept families off balance and in his sway by dividing husbands, wives and children. His mind games featured brutal beatings in impromptu boxing ring pitting youths who offended Jones against far bigger opponents.

She argued and beseeched her relatives to leave, but nothing worked. Jones offered an upbeat message that was hard to overcome, she said. The largely black congregation was sprinkled with white families and led by Jones who adopted Asian and black children alongside his own. "They had that racial harmony that is needed today, and I know that," she said.

When the church left San Francisco for Guyana, she sensed the end was coming. Along with nightmares of her own, Norwood got word of trouble in the Jonestown "agricultural mission," which became a concentration camp, she said Higher-ups had special privileges. There was a guarded hut where troublemakers were confined, especially those who wanted to leave. Bugs, heat and thankless work rankled many members.

This crackpot kingdom fell apart when San Mateo Rep. Leo Ryan arrived for a look-over at the behest of worried constituents with relatives in Jonestown. Sure enough, as Norwood and others sensed, people - first a handful and then a growing number - asked to leave.

The collapse unhinged Jones, already unstable from heavy drug use. Surrounded by armed guards, he ordered his followers to drink poison, starting with the children first. Days later, when she heard of the deaths, Norwood said, she cried for hours, then days. "I knew that name and then another and another," she said.

Her job of remembrance isn't finished. She has a Web site (jones-town.org) to explain her project. But she and the rest of us may soon have a memorial that's been missing.

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