East Texans at Jonestown

Earnestine Thomas March was from Lufkin. Eartis Jeffery was from Longview. His wife, Margrette, was from Center. Luberta Arnold grew up near Timpson.

Wednesday marked the 42nd anniversary of the notorious Jonestown Massacre, which claimed the lives of more than 900 people in a settlement in Guyana.

Among the 913 dead were 118 Texans, including at least 30 with roots in Deep East Texas.

Their stories are largely forgotten.

Jim Jones was from the Midwest and began a legitimate Christian ministry there before going off the rails, rejecting the Bible and promoting Marxism. He settled his cult in California in the 1970s, and most assume his followers came exclusively from the West Coast.

But that’s not true.

They came from places like Timpson, Lufkin and Center — small cities dotted around rural areas of the South. Working class Blacks from rural areas joined Jones’ Peoples Temple in droves as its members toured the country in buses on recruiting missions.

For decades the Jonestown Massacre has been viewed as a mass suicide, but evidence points to murder. Jones brainwashed his followers and urged them to drink Flavor-Aid laced with poison. Many resisted. Those who didn’t follow his words were shot or injected with the stuff.

Following are stories of some of the East Texans who died that day.

Luberta “Birdie” Arnold

Born in 1907, Luberta Arnold was the daughter of former slaves living near Timpson.

Arnold was a tall, stout woman with wide eyes and a beaming smile. At some point before 1945, Arnold moved to Los Angeles where she was fingerprinted by the U.S. Civil Services Commission. We know this because those fingerprints were used to identify her body in 1978.

She first came to Jonestown — a promised paradise — in August 1977. Most people brought a spouse, children and even grandchildren. Arnold came alone. What family did she leave behind? It appears her Texas relatives are buried in New Liberty Cemetery in Shelby County.

She worked as a nurse caring for the elderly — many younger than she — in that makeshift town in jungle of Guyana.

She died in the massacre, and her body was laid to rest at Paradise Memorial park in Los Angeles.

Earnestine Thomas March

Earnestine Thomas March was born in Lufkin in 1930, and by the time she was 35 she had moved to California.

There she had three children, Anita, born first, followed by twins Alfreda and Alfred.

“Earnestine’s children were highly intelligent, conscientious and deeply idealistic,” wrote author and ex-Peoples Temple member Kathryn Barbour, who was in San Francisco the day of the massacre.

Outside the Peoples Temple, March worked as a secretary, a nurse and a cashier. The children’s father, Alfred Sr., was not present in Guyana, and it is unclear if he was a member of the Peoples Temple.

March and her three children, ages 16 and 14, all died in the massacre.

Margrette and Eartis Jeffery

Margrette was born in Center in September 1913 while her husband, Eartis, was born in Longview the same year.

Photos of the couple show them dressed in Sunday best, smiling. The two went to Guyana together in August 1977 after having lived for at least a year in Los Angeles.

Margrette wore cat eye glasses and was a hair dresser. Eartis looked like he should have been a Baptist preacher, but worked outdoors. Peoples Temple members described him as a pillar of agricultural production there, and he was in charge of the settlement’s smokehouse.

“As sweet and soft as her husband was a live wire, Margrette and Eartis were a beautiful couple,” Barbour wrote of them.

Several pieces of information and photos for this story come from Alternative Consideration of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, a project at San Diego State University. Learn more at https://jonestown.sdsu.edu if you have more information about the lives of East Texans who died at Jonestown in 1978 or were involved with Peoples Temple, email Josh Edwards at jedwards@dailysentinel.com or call 936-558-3201.

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