By Candace J. Semien, Jozef Syndicate reporter, The Drum Newspaper
BATON ROUGE (The Drum/NNPA)—For more than three decades, Sadie Roberts-Joseph was an exceptional force of civic and cultural life in Baton Rouge. Often called an activist, matriarch, and a ‘tireless advocate of peace,’ the 75-year-old founder of the city’s African-American history museum was found dead in the trunk of a car on Friday, July 12, about 3 miles from her home. Police did not explain what led them to the car where they found her body.
Investigators believe she was suffocated before her body was found. Within days, Baton Rouge Police arrested and charged a male tenant from one of Roberts-Joseph’s rent houses with her murder. He was allegedly $1,200 behind in his rent.
While leaning from the historic bus, archivist Sadie Roberts-Joseph delivers a presentation on the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott to tourist visiting the museum. Photo by James Terry III.
“You stole light,” said her son Jason Roberts. “You stole a warm, loving, giving and caring woman and it wasn’t just for her family. She cared for the city. She cared for you. Her life should not have ended that way. She did not deserve that, but she would want forgiveness for you.”
In 2001, Roberts-Joseph founded the Odell S. Williams Now & Then African American Museum, which features exhibits of African art and tells the stories of minority inventors. It also includes displays of historical artifacts from the civil rights era, including a 1963 bus used during the Baton Rouge boycotts.
Leading up to this year’s Juneteenth Celebration, she’d begun rebranding the museum as the Baton Rouge African American History Museum, which some recognized as an astute move to market it as the city’s museum and to connect it to other Black museums in Southeast Louisiana.
“She was one of the standout matriarchs of Baton Rouge,” said Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who knew and worked with Roberts-Joseph for 30 years. “We will make her legacy a priority because of what she gave to so many here.”
Roberts-Joseph was also the founder of the nonprofit organization Community Against Drugs and Violence, and she organized the state’s recognition of Juneteenth in Baton Rouge.
Roberts-Joseph grew up in Woodville, Mississippi. Her family later moved to Baton Rouge, where she studied education and speech pathology. She consistently called for unity and togetherness, often explaining how the city and nation needed to heal from the legacy of slavery. “What my mother wanted in life came to fruition — ironically — in death,” said Angela R. Machen, Ph.D., “and that was inclusiveness, togetherness and diversity.”
Machen challenged the community to keep her mother’s legacy by living “a better life. Give a little more effort to make the whole better.” She said her mother was committed to community service and excellence, “Whatever you believe in, work hard in it. Give your dead-level best.”
Sadie Roberts-Joseph speaks at the 2019 Juneteenth Celebration on the banks of the Mississippi River. The archivist and founder of the Baton Rouge African American Museum (formerly the Odell S Williams Now and Then African American Museum) was murdered July 12, 2019. Photo by Yulani Semien.
The family has created The Sadie Roberts-Joseph Memorial Fund at Hancock Whitney Bank and is hoping to raise funds that will go toward museum operations.
The Southern University System Board of Supervisors presented a resolution to the family. The resolution outlined the commitment of Roberts Joseph to both her family and the city of Baton Rouge. These commitments included founding the museum. She was an alumna of Southern University.
“Our love for Sadie Roberts-Joseph will continue. We will demonstrate it in very tangible ways,” said Broome. For starts, the Mayor’s Youth Workforce Experience participants, led by The Walls Project and Build Baton Rouge, will paint a mural of the revered activist at 2065 Plank Road — the corner of Plank Road and Pawnee Street, in North Baton Rouge.
The community shares their memories and tributes:
Gov. John bel Edwards: I am heartbroken and sickened by the disturbing death of Sadie Roberts-Joseph. @FirstLadyOfLA and I are praying for her family and the members of the Baton Rouge community who, like us, are struggling to understand this senseless act of violence.
Many knew Sadie as the founder of Baton Rouge’s African-American History Museum and for her annual Juneteenth celebrations, but she was equally known for her kindness, vibrant spirit, and passion for promoting peace. Sadie was a storyteller, and I believe we have the responsibility of keeping those stories alive and working to, as she once said, “build a better state and a better nation.”
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome: In the midst of managing a major weather event in our parish, I was hit with some devastating news — the murder of a dear friend and a mother of the community, Sadie Roberts Joseph. I’ve deliberately waited to comment because of the level of love and respect I had for Sadie and because it was such shocking news.
She loved this city and its people. Her commitment to the cultural and educational fabric of our community is beyond description. The development of The Odell S. Williams African American Museum is a testament of her visionary and pioneering leadership. In the days to come, I look forward to offering a more comprehensive tribute.
Erica Williams Mitchell, Phyllis, and Owusu Bandele, Ph.D. sing along with the crowd gathering at Sadie Roberts-Joseph vigil at the Baton Rouge African-American History Museum. Photo by Antione GHOST Mitchell @the_art_alchemist
State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle: My heart is empty… as I learned last night that Ms. Sadie Roberts Joseph was found murdered! This woman was amazing and loved her history. She never bothered anyone, just wanted to expand her African American Museum downtown, where she continually hosted the Juneteenth Celebration yearly. I loved working with her and am saddened by her death.
Judge John Michael Guidry: My friend Sadie Roberts-Joseph often had me as her Speaker for her Juneteenth Celebrations in South Baton Rouge or her Veterans Observance at Port Hudson. We bonded over 25 years ago when, as a State Senator, I worked with the community group CADAV which she led in the Banks community.
Her life was one of sacrificial service to others. She gave herself away so that God could use her. She reminded us of our history and has earned her place in the history of our community. Her death was tragic, but her life was a treasure. I choose to focus my thoughts not on how she died, but on how she lived. My condolences and prayers are with her family.
State Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith: As I sit remembering my dear dear friend Sadie I know the tears I’ve shed do no more than help relieve my emotions. A lot of people knew or knew of Sadie but really didn’t know her. For those of us who did, who grew up in her time we knew a bit more. Sadie’s death isn’t an opportunity for news sound bites without knowing her family or involving her family.
I am disappointed. This is indeed a time for ALL who knew her and really want her legacy to be enshrined AND the perpetrators brought to justice to come together in unity. NO MAN IS AN ISLAND and we should be embracing her family and referring news outlets to them.
Some may not like this post, but I respect her family and for as much time as she and I spent together dealing with the museum issues I could never politicize her death and there are others who feel as I do. I LOVED SADIE FOR WHO SHE WAS AND ADMIRED ALL SHE WAS TRYING TO DO FOR OUR COMMUNITY. UNIFY FOR THE LOVE OF Sadie L. Roberts-Joseph!
Donna Collins Lewis: My heart is aching. I have known Ms. Sadie for over 30 years. A wonderful, sweet and quiet soul. Soft-spoken with a passion for the community and African American History and Art. I pray for a quick resolution in bringing the person responsible to justice. I pray God’s strength and peace for her family and the many lives who are saddened by her death.
May her legacy and work continue to live through the African American Museum and the many efforts she championed in the community. She leaves her footprint on the entire parish and far beyond.
NAACP Baton Rouge Branch: We lost a Cultural Legend Yesterday! #RIP Sadie Roberts Joseph. From reviving Juneteenth, to the Culture preserved at Her Museum, she was a trendsetter and icon in this City.
The King Center: We mourn. Sadie Roberts-Joseph was the founder and curator of the Baton Rouge African-American Museum, which she started in 2001. She was a tireless advocate of peace.
Baton Rouge Police Department: The Baton Rouge Police Department joins the community in mourning the loss of Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph. Ms. Sadie was a tireless advocate of peace in the community. We had opportunities to work with her on so many levels. From assisting with her bicycle give away at the African American Museum to working with the organization she started called CADAV (Community Against Drugs and Violence). Ms. Sadie is a treasure to our community, she will be missed by BRPD and her loss will be felt in the community she served.
Broderick Bagert: Shocked & saddened by the death of Ms. Sadie L. Roberts-Joseph. She founded the Now & Then Museum of African American History in Baton Rouge on a shoestring as part of her life-long project to teach Black history & civil rights. She was part of Together Baton Rouge from its earliest days. Ms. Sadie was a calm presence. And a fierce presence in every fiber of her being. May she rest in peace. And may the rest of us live up to her legacy, STARTING by supporting her vision for the Then & Now Museum.
Paula Johnson-Hutchinson: On this day, Ms. Sadie told me that writing books of our lives and culture ensures the sustainability of us and that we wouldn’t be forgotten. She also said that sharing knowledge and being true teachers of our children will provide a pathway that will long outlive us.
LSU Office of Diversity: Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph founded the Baton Rouge African-American Museum which tells the stories of African-Americans in Louisiana throughout history from the cotton grown in the museum’s garden to artifacts like a 1953 bus from the year of the city’s public bus boycott protesting racial segregation. Ms. Roberts-Joseph gave away bicycles at the museum and started a community organization to fight drugs and violence. She was known as a quiet leader and tireless advocate of peace in the community. Our LSU family mourns her tragic loss.
Res-Brother Stanley: We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
David Modeste: Much respect to Sister Sadie for her tireless efforts to uplift the community in every way she knew how. We especially appreciate her active contribution and participation in the Baton Rouge Kwanzaa Celebrations sponsored by Afrocentric Focus Group of Baton Rouge.
Walter Geno McLaughlin: We’ve all posted about it and reacted to the news locally. And now we see the lens of national news outlets focused on the death of Miss Sadie. Fitting, yet unexpected.
It’s strange how in death we seek to honor those who have done so much to uplift our community on a daily basis. But this video shows how she lived; with a smile on her face, a quiet force of nature, motivated by the need to narrate & curate our own stories.
One of the last times I saw Miss Sadie, she was hopeful that with all the renewed energy towards investment in underserved neighborhoods, her little museum would not be forgotten and would receive the resources to make it sustainable.
This woman did so much with so little. And like many others who do this work, probably never knew the full weight of her impact. It is why it’s important to clap for people while they are here and give them the fuel to keep moving forward. I’m left to wonder who would do such a thing to someone we all loved, and at this tender age?
There is speculation beyond the normal motives, and we must ask tough questions. But as we all prepared for the coming storm, I believe she was likely still helping people, not fully aware of the dangers, whatever they were. What I do know is that her funeral will be full of dashiki wearing brothers and sisters emulating the look she was synonymous for. Rest in Power Queen. We will take it from here.
Niles B. Haymer: This morning I visited the African American Museum that was so loved by her and I could feel her spirit and presence throughout along with her love of displaying African American History in Baton Rouge.
I got a chance to speak with Ms. Sadie this past February at a Black History Program sponsored by Councilwoman Erika Green where I promised Ms. Sadie that my kids would soon visit her museum for a photo op with her. My oldest son even wondered loudly why I’ve never taken him to the museum in front of Ms. Sadie. Of course, I was embarrassed and gave him that look of “I’ll deal with you later.”
Unbeknownst to my son, he was right, many families of all races should have supported this historic museum and still have time to do so. Sadly, that day never came for my kids, Ms. Sadie and that well-anticipated photo op.
Violent crime in Baton Rouge is an unspeakable epidemic that’s stealing the soul of this City. I know that the candlelight vigil this evening will be well-attended, and I wanted to just take in her life’s work without disruption.
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle has assisted the family in setting up the Sadie Roberts Joseph Memorial Fund at Hancock Whitney Bank. This is our chance to give to a worthy cause by keeping this museum open and well funded. #JusticeforSadie
Councilwoman Erika Green: Today, I speak Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph’s name! Though her life was taken by a heartless person in this city yesterday, I am comforted in remembering the community and the African-American history she carried in her soul. She loved and told the story of our people.
Shenena Armstrong Merchant: Aunty Sadie was a light to the Armstrong family, she taught me through her actions how to smile through it. So, in spite of my tears, I’m smiling because her legacy lives on; bigger, stronger, and more loving.
Jeremy L. Blunt: My heart mourns today at the loss of such a pillar of our community. I met Mrs. Sadie L. Roberts-Joseph as a teenager and can still remember our conversations where she encouraged me to keep striving for others. She told me that one day, I too would be one of those on her wall. We have to not just seek justice for her but seek betterment in our community by how we treat one another. Love is a universal language that does not discriminate. Remember what she lived for and carry that message on.
Lloyd Benson II: Thank you, Queen, for always inspiring and encouraging us to learn, respect, and appreciate our heritage.
Tiffany Littlejohn: My Aunt Sadie L. Roberts-Joseph always wanted to be famous. Her story is breaking twitter, being shared by CNN, CBS, ABC, ESSENCE magazine, BET, Instagram, US News, New York Times, Perez Hilton, New York Daily News, and the list goes on and on… TAKE YOUR PLACE QUEEN, TAKE YOUR PLACE.
LaNeir Roberts: Aunt Sadie L. Roberts-Joseph was beautiful, smart, truly a phenomenal woman, and loved the Lord. I will never forget our Christmas light adventure. Never saw the Christmas lights but we managed to find the railroad tracks (lol).
When we asked to listen to the radio Aunt Sadie turns it to the politics station; and we expressed to her that we wanted to listen to rap music… she started banging on the steering wheel lol. Aunt Sadie was definitely a character, but she was also an educator and loved by so many.
I still can’t believe she’s gone. Please please please continue to pray for my family as we support each other through this difficult time. Rest in paradise Auntie, until we meet again.
Quentin Anthony Anderson Sr.: So, it was great to see everyone at Ms. Sadie’s vigil last night. But many of y’all admitted that it was the first time you had ever stepped foot on the campus of that museum. That’s fine, a lot of people hadn’t, and it speaks volumes to how big of an impact Ms. Sadie left on Baton Rouge that so many people were touched by her and hadn’t even see her in her purest element as a historian and curator. But that museum is our history, Black Baton Rouge. And it’s her legacy.
If you were willing to come out in the heat and endure an entire church service and 4 closing prayers for Ms. Sadie yesterday, the least you can do is support the museum-going forward.
Visit the museum. Take your kids. Volunteer (Ms. Sadie really wanted to maintain those column murals and the maps on the ground, hint hint). Donate monthly to keep the museum open.
Sharon Weston Broome, designate the museum as a local historical landmark and protect it from greedy developers. We all have a part we can play as a community. As my friend Myra Richardson says, make this a movement, not a moment. Make this important to you beyond just today, beyond it trending on your favorite timeline. If you truly care about Ms. Sadie and her legacy, let’s protect and preserve it by supporting her crown jewel.
Myra Richardson: Last summer, Byron Washington and Ms. Sadie asked me work with the museum because she said she needed some “youthful energy”. I’m eternally grateful for both of those relationships.
However, one of the things that struck me was when she told me the Museum was an extension of her. Every piece collected in that museum passed through her delicate fingers, every tour was different as she would recount how she got a different artifact. I thought I was an intense person but spend a few days a week on a hot bus with that women and she’ll learn you a thing or two.
She made me read endlessly but she talked to me more about how important oral history is and passing down stories. She was a walking book and just wanted to share the museum with the world. She dreamed of renovating the building and connecting it to the building behind it, even thought of renaming it once.
The last piece of literature she had me read was about Oscar Dunn. In 1868, Dunn became the first elected Black lieutenant governor of a U.S. state. His sentiments were written during reconstruction hailing from the great State of Louisiana, but Ms. Sadie wanted me to draw parallels that he was essentially asking for the same thing 151 years ago that we’re asking for today.
She viewed knowledge of history as an equalizer, she wanted me and youth across Louisiana to have access to that museum purely because knowledge is more than power … it’s a labor of love.
That museum is Ms. Sadie, that museum is more than a legacy … it’s a living breathing organism birthed from her dreams, travels, relationships and love for all of us. That museum is my chief priority and should be yours as well.
Byron Washington: Many people will rightly so build memorials and vigils. I think the best way to Honor Sadie is to honor her legacy. Honor what she put her heart and soul in. Donate, find funding sources, and promote the museum. Make it so the doors will never close and we will never lose its memory.
Learn your local history and embrace your local culture. It is unique and should be celebrated from the mountain tops. So instead of buying a bunch of flowers, although you certainly are within you right and in many cases should let’s put that money into the facility. Let’s put our energy into the grants. Let’s put our focus into promotion.
Stephanie Anthony: She was a fellow worker in the vineyard, a kind, sweet lady I can’t wrap my mind around what our city has become capable of these days. What a great loss. Prayers for her family.
Johnny Anderson: The recent murder of my dear and sweet 75-year-old friend Sadie Roberts-Joseph has greatly disturbed me, personally, and Baton Rouge, collectively!! I have so many questions but, I know my friend, Baton Rouge Chief of Police Murphy Paul will do his all to find and appropriately charge the person or persons who committed such a horrific crime!! What is on the mind(s) of anybody to kill a 75-year-old Christian, mother, grandmother, humanitarian, community Activist, human and civil rights activist, African-American historian and protector of the culture, lover of arts, fighter for the people’s cause…! Not only kill her but, stuff her in the trunk of a car!!?
So many times, when I was in government, at the state or federal level, Sadie had no problem making her way there to my office and express her opinion on issues or to advocate for help for the least! I never knew her children, grandchildren or relatives because she never came asking for help for them, it was always about helping others!
One of my more recent memories of her was she coming to my office to express concerns with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) where she had taken upstate property for her Museum expansion, painting African-American heroes on State post and was NOT moving it! Then on another occasion to have me as her guest speaker at the Museum!
I was so hot that day, looks like it was 90+ degrees but, she thought that my removing my jacket, on the OUTSIDE, where I was speaking, would lower the dignity of her activity/event…and I was crazy enough to listen to her and kept my coat though they got a shorter version of my speech!!
She was always soft-spoken but, very forcefull about her position, that was not easily changed! Sadie had a small voice but, strong convictions about her causes! She hardly shouted at anyone but, she never stopped coming to the “gate” to help others!
She often reminded me of the woman in the Bible that came night and day to “bother” the one in authority until she ultimately got what she wanted!! Sounds familiar LA DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson and Attorney Joshua G. Hollins?!
Sadie Roberts-Joseph was persistent! She knew how to ask you for financial support for the Annual Juneteenth Celebration without ever asking you for a penny, which by the way, should now be appropriately entitled the “Sadie Roberts-Joseph Juneteenth Celebration!”
I want her murderer(s) to be brought to justice!! Did they even know what this woman embodied…who she was…what she meant…who she fought for…her commitment…her love…did they know?!!! Rest well my friend…you wrought well while here!!