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Slain Civil Rights Leader Sadie Roberts-Joseph, Remembered as 'Voice for Peace' in Baton Rouge

Jul 22, 2019

The murder of a well-known African American activist in Baton Rouge left many in the capital city stunned. Sadie Roberts-Joseph was best known for founding the city’s African American history museum. Her funeral Monday capped more than a week of public mourning.

In a city that’s seen its fair share of murders, the tone around this murder-- this case-- was different.

At a press conference announcing an arrest in the case, veteran law enforcement officers and prosecutors spoke personally, about the woman they knew as “Ms. Sadie.”

Among them was East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux.

“Hate tried to silence Ms. Sadie, but her voice will continue to ring strong for peace and love through all the countless people she touched,” Gautreaux said.

The 75-year-old was found suffocated in the trunk of her car earlier this month.

Authorities have said there is no evidence to suggest that her killing was motivated by her activism-- or her race.

The suspect in the case, Ronn Jermaine Bell, was a former tenant of Roberts-Joseph. Police have not disclosed a motive in the case, but said at a press conference that Bell had fallen $1,200 behind in rent.

Roberts-Joseph’s daughter, Angela Machen, urged the community to not let the circumstances of her mother’s death overshadow her lifetime of service.

“As much as I want to be at home right now, just wallowing in my own grief, I cannot do that to her,” Machen said. “She worked so hard. She pushed. She got everything that she could out of the 75 years that she lived.”

It’s hard to sum up what Sadie Roberts-Joseph meant to Baton Rouge and its African American community.

In the 1980s she founded a group that brought together community leaders and law enforcement to reduce the impact of drugs and violence in the city. In 1991, she rekindled the annual celebration of Juneteenth, marking the emancipation of slaves. And a decade later, she founded the city’s only African American history museum.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said, “There was no doubt that that museum was her passion. And she used it as a tool to unite people around history, around African American history.”

When news of Roberts-Joseph death was announced, hundreds gathered outside the museum to hold a candlelight vigil.

The museum itself isn’t huge. It’s a small, clapboard house just blocks from the Mississippi River and across the street from the former police headquarters.

Nevertheless, it became the site of festivals and marches led by Roberts-Joseph over the years.

Ms. Sadie got to know a lot of the officers -- gracefully turning their responses to noise complaints into lasting relationships. That stood out in a city where tensions between police and the black community are sometimes strained.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul spoke at the vigil.

“All of my police officers had a Ms. Sadie story,” Paul said. “What I pray is that what she stood for, the love this community had for her. Let’s take that energy, let it become contagious, and let’s start something different here in the city of Baton Rouge.”

Today, the museum that Roberts-Joseph kept alive is boarded up. Officials say they’re hoping to secure funding to reopen and expand-- building on the legacy of a beloved matriarch of the community.