Sadie Roberts-Joseph, a prominent figure in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was discovered dead in the trunk of a car on Friday, July 12. On July 15, the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office announced that the preliminary cause of her death was “traumatic asphyxia, including suffocation.”
The 75-year-old activist and curator founded the city’s nonprofit Odell S. Williams Now & Then Museum of African American History in 2001. She has hosted a Juneteenth celebration in the Louisiana city for years and is known for saying, “Culture is the glue that holds a people together. Take a step back in time and leap into your future.”
This is Sadie Roberts-Joseph and she created a museum celebrating the history of African Americans in Baton Rouge, a city that is over 54% black. She was found in a trunk yesterday at 4pm. She was 75 years old. pic.twitter.com/GSAcpGYv8i
— blakespeare (@B_Fashoo) July 13, 2019
According to the Associated Press, the museum exhibited African art, exhibits on Black inventors and growing cotton, and “a 1953 bus from the period of civil rights boycotts in Baton Rouge.” There were also exhibits on President Barack Obama, who Roberts-Joseph referred to as an inspiration to youth.
“We have to be educated about our history and other people’s history,” Roberts-Joseph told the Advocate in 2016. “Across racial lines, the community can help to build a better Baton Rouge, a better state and a better nation.”
Somebody really murdered Sadie Roberts-Joseph. She was one of the last black oral street historians of Baton Rouge and dedicated her life to telling the story of freedom fighters in my hometown with the most beautiful art. Rest in Power, Miss Sadie. You didn’t deserve this. https://t.co/0n5Aco3RUP
— Let’s All Be Abolitionists ? (@jaZiFRESH) July 13, 2019
In a statement, the Baton Rouge Police Department wrote:
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.
They continued: “Our detectives are working diligently to bring the person or persons responsible for this heinous act to justice.” They ask that anyone who has information related to Roberts-Joseph’s death call detectives at 225-389-4869 or Crime Stoppers at 225-344-STOP (7867).
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul told CNN yesterday evening that he is confident that the authorities are “going to make an arrest.”
“The community has been working with our detectives,” he told CNN yesterday evening. “We are getting calls, we are getting emails, we are getting text messages.”
“There will be no investigative lead that will not be exhausted in this investigation,” Paul continued.
She was discovered approximately three miles from her residence. Her death was reported by an anonymous caller who reported discovering her body.
In a Facebook post, Louisiana State Representative C. Denise Marcelle said, “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.”
NAACP Baton Rouge Branch wrote in a remembrance on Facebook, “From reviving Juneteenth, to the Culture preserved at Her Museum, she was a trendsetter and icon in this City.”
Editors note 7/16/19 11:40am: This article has been updated to include new information provided by the Baton Rouge Police Department and East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office.
Update 7/16/19 5:40pm: Baton Rouge police have arrested and charged Ronn Germaine Bell, a tenant in one of Roberts-Joseph’s rental properties, with first-degree murder. The suspect, who is a registered sex offender, owed approximately $1,200 in rent, police say. A motive has not yet been identified, but the police do not believe it to be a hate crime or tied to the museum founder’s activism.
“All my mother ever wanted was for this community to come together,” Roberts-Joseph’s daughter Angela said in a news conference Tuesday. “It’s ironic that that happened in death. What she wanted to happen in life came to fruition in death.”
Update 8/14/19 12:10pm: On Monday, August 12, Baton Rouge’s African American Museum was badly damaged in what appears to be an act of vandalism exactly one month after its founder was found murdered. Photos posted on Facebook show windows popped from their frames and benches flipped over. Police are investigating the incident but have not yet confirmed whether or not vandals are responsible for the destruction, which included fountains with crystals torn apart, gardens trampled over, and chairs flipped upside down.