Sadie Roberts-Joseph was classified as many things, such as founder, curator, community leader and a Baton Rouge icon recognized for her relentless efforts to help the African-American community.
On Friday, July 12, Baton Rouge activist Roberts-Joseph was found dead in the trunk of her car.
According to the preliminary autopsy released by Baton Rouge Coroner Beau Clark, M.D., D-ABMDI, Roberts-Joseph, 75, died of suffocation. Where according to an affidavit that after Roberts-Joseph body was placed in the trunk it was then doused with bleach.
Baton Rouge police charged Ronn Jermaine Bell on July 16 with first-degree murder for the killing of Roberts-Joseph. Police searched Bell’s home to find two empty bleach bottles with small black fibers that matched the fibers on the body of Roberts-Joseph, according to the autopsy report. Bell was a tenant in one of Roberts-Joseph’s rental homes and was behind several months on rent and believed to have owed around $1,200.
Bell has had many run-ins with the law. In 2005, Bell was charged on separate accounts of then being accused of raping an 8-year-old girl. Then he was convicted two years later. In 2007, after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of sexual battery of a 9-year-old girl. Bell then served 7 years on a plea bargain and recently was in trouble for not following the law regarding his sex offender status. East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office picked up Bell on Monday, July 15, for failing to register as a sex offender. He was then behind bars when BRPD assessed the murder charges.
In past Baton Rouge history, it is stated that officials refused to make Black History part of the mandatory school curriculum. But, Roberts-Joseph had other plans, making it her mission to make learning about black history accessible and a necessity to Baton Rouge. She wanted people in the community to understand their heritage and their past, as well as promote unity.
A native of Woodville, Texas, Roberts-Joseph was the fifth child of 12. Her parents were sharecroppers. Always searching for answers as a child, it was no surprise when she would dedicate her life to getting her questions answered by the history of the black community.
“We have to be educated about our history and other people’s history,” Roberts-Joseph said. “Across racial lines, the community can help to build a better Baton Rouge, a better state and a better nation.”
As the founder of the Baton Rouge African-American History Museum in 2001, formerly known as the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American Museum.
She was also the leader of multiple Juneteenth celebrations to bring awareness that African-American slaves were not abolished from slavery until June 19, 1865 and founded a nonprofit organization focused on creating a safer environment for children in North Baton Rouge.
Angela Machen, Robert-Joseph’s daughter, said she felt numb for several days after the murder and didn't fully grasp the unclear motive of Bell in the murdering of a Baton Rouge treasure. But, amid this unfortunate event, Machen was positive that despite the death of her mother and her work can still continue.
“All my mother ever wanted was for the community to come together. Ironically, that happened in death,” Machen said. “What she wanted to happen in life came to fruition in death. However, we will see to it that her legacy continues.”
People influenced by Roberts-Joseph cannot comprehend the crime, but all impacted are still committed to living out her legacy and telling the stories that she lived wanting people to know.
Myra Richardson, a museum volunteer, spent countless moments with Roberts-Joseph learning more about the vision for the museum, something she said she believed Roberts-Joseph dedicated her life to.
“That was her life’s work. That was her manifesto,” Richardson said. “The museum was an extension of who she was. She embodied our culture. She embodied freedom.”
The physical representation of the African-American museum she founded tells a story with exhibits, one, in particular, being the bus boycott exhibit outside the museum that tells the story of the Baton Rouge bus boycott during the Civil Rights era and other historic black leaders were her love letter to the city.
Saddened by the loss of a Baton Rouge Activist, Gov. John Bel Edwards took his sediments to Twitter, showing his appreciation and memory of the leadership and involvement Roberts-Joseph had on wanting to make Baton Rouge a better place.
"I am heartbroken and sickened by the disturbing death of Sadie Roberts-Joseph … struggling to understand this senseless act of violence," Edwards wrote.
"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.'"
Now, Roberts-Joseph's story will live on for more generations to hear. Her tireless activism and unforgettable efforts to strengthen a community despite the inhumane history of the past encouraged others to strive to become knowledgeable in the history of others as well.
Her memorable storytelling ability created relationships with any person who was willing to listen to her timeless accounts of her accrued artifacts. The community organization Together Baton Rouge stated how her death should not be the staple of her remembrance but her work in the community should be a lasting memory.
“While her death is a tragedy, it would be an even greater injustice to let her death overshadow her tremendous life that left behind a legacy of activism and Black pride that endeared her to the Baton Rouge Community.”