Meira Gebel Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EST Nov 16, 2018
Odell Rhodes was fairly “closed-mouthed” when it came to recounting his experience in Jonestown.
Eugene Smith is writing a memoir about his.
And Anthony Hicks was just 12 when he died, alongside his brother, mother and aunt, during the historic massacre that happened 40 years ago this Sunday — all Detroit natives.
More than 900 people died on Nov. 18, 1978 in the mass murder-suicide, known as the Jonestown Massacre, the largest, worst cult suicide in modern history.
The event stunned the world. Families in Michigan, and across the country, scrambled for answers as news of the event made its way to the forefront of national conversation. Relatives lined up at air force bases hoping their mother, daughter or nephew caught up in the counterculture of the ’70s would be identified among those found in Guyana.
“I realize that the majority of so-called survivors were traumatized teenagers and young adults who were expected to come back to a society that shunned us in 1978 and that still stares at us in 2018,” Smith wrote in a recent post on the Jonestown Institute blog.
What happened in 1978
Jonestown was an an agricultural project established in Guyana, located to the east of Venezuela in South America, by the Peoples Temple, a religious group based in California and founded in the early ‘60s by the Rev. Jim Jones.
On Nov. 18, 40 years ago, Jones, commonly referred to as the cult leader and often called “father” by followers, urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Most were poisoned forcibly. Survivors recall members lining up to take the poison, children first, then adults. The ordeal spawned the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
The massacre happened just hours after Rep. Leo Ryan, a congressman from California, was killed alongside an NBC news crew and several reporters on an air strip in Guyana. Ryan had come to the country to investigate claims that people were being held against their will.
According to the San Diego-based Jonestown Institute, 87 Temple members survived, including the 36 people who started the day in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. Some members in Guyana were able to slip out of Jonestown or happened to be away that particular day.
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Detroiters in Jonestown
Six people known to be from Detroit were in Jonestown. Only two of them survived that day.
Marthea Hicks, her two sons, Anthony, 12, and Romaldo, 13, along with her sister, Shirley, died. Marthea and Shirley were known to be R&B singers and musicians in Jonestown, and even performed on occasion.
One of the survivors was Odell Rhodes, who hid during the suicide ceremony and even wrote a letter to Jones expressing a desire to leave the settlement weeks before.
Rhodes, 36 then, was one of the first to describe the tragedy to the world — his quotes documented across national newspapers. He said Jones killed himself with a gunshot to the head.
He described himself as an electronic technician for Ford Motor Co., and a former U.S.Signal Corp officer who joined the Peoples Temple in 1976 while living in California. He arrived in Guyana a year later, Rhodes said during an FBI inquisition one month after the incident.
Before 1978, Rhodes made an appearance in print. A Free Press article from July 26,1974 described Rhodes as a drug user, having “apparently ransacked” the room of two federal narcotics agents at the now Westin-Book Cadillac.
In a Nov. 21, 1978 article of the Free Press about the body count of Jonestown, Rhodes was described as a “36-year-old convicted heroin addict with a long police and Army arrest record.” He said he took refuge in the jungle when the cyanide vat was brought out, and remembered security guards patrolling the campgrounds.
At the time of the article, he was believed to be the lone Detroit survivor of the massacre in Jonestown.
Eugene Smith survived, too. But that is not the way he sees it.
“None of us survived Jonestown – none of us – because the world ended on that day,” Smith wrote in a blog post for Jonestown Institute describing his intent to write a memoir.
He was in Georgetown clearing clearing items from customs on Nov. 18, 1978. His mother, his wife, Ollie, and infant son, Martin, died that day.
Smith was born in Detroit, and his family were members of the Rev. C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist church.
Smith did not respond to request for comment, though he appeared in a 2015 panel on Jonestown for C-SPAN.
Laura Johnston Kohl, 71 and also a survivor, remembers Rhodes as a sort of elder to the children of Jonestown, his cane always by his side.
“He was my morning alarm clock,” she told the Free Press. “I wouldn’t really know how I would have woken up without him.”
Rhodes, Johnston Kohl said, would frequently spend time teaching crafts to the camp’s children, 300 of whom died.
“He was a role model for the kids in a lot of ways,” she said. Ten years ago, Johnston Kohl saw Rhodes for the first time since Jonestown, at a 20-year memorial in Oakland. She said he seemed “distraught” and left early before speaking to some of the other survivors. Rhodes died in 2014.
On Sunday, survivors will gather in Oakland, Calif., for the 40-year anniversary of Jonestown. There will be a reading of names for those who died.
“Some of the survivors are out and talking about (Jonestown), writing books,” said Johnston Kohl. “But when you are traumatized, you are on your own schedule, and it will always be tough to meet up with the survivors.”
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