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Update 7/16 4:00 p.m.: Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that police have arrested and charged Ron Germaine Bell with first-degree murder. Police said that Bell was a tenant of Robert-Joseph's but have not yet determined a motive. Paul also added that he doesn’t believe the murder was a hate crime or related to Robert Joseph's decades-long work as an active member of the Baton Rouge community.
Louisiana police are investigating the “heinous” death of Sadie Roberts-Joseph, a prominent champion for U.S. black history who most notably established the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American Museum in 2001.
Roberts-Joseph, 75, was found dead in the trunk of her car Friday afternoon in Baton Rouge. The car was discovered three and a half miles from home.
A cause of death has not yet been determined, and an autopsy is scheduled for Monday, according to Baton Rouge police. Although several local politicians, mourning her loss, have called the incident a “murder,” police have not yet ruled her death a homicide.
“While awaiting autopsy results, we are searching for any information concerning her findings,” Officer Don Coppola Jr. told VICE News.
Details of what exactly happened are scarce. Roberts-Joseph’s daughter Angela Machen told hometown newspaper The Advocate, that the black historian was last seen Friday morning visiting her sister, who lived just two houses down the block.
Police have not yet revealed what led to the discovery of Robert-Joseph’s body but have said they are hard at work trying to find whoever’s involved in the community leader’s death.
“Our detectives are working diligently to bring the person or persons responsible for this heinous act to justice,” Baton Rouge Police Department wrote in a Facebook post Friday morning.
Robert-Joseph’s greatest legacy in the Louisiana city is the Now and Then African-American Museum, which features an authentic bus from the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott and first-hand accounts from black Americans who endured years of discrimination during America’s civil rights era. The museum also showcases the work of local artists paying tribute to black history.
In addition to her work on the museum, Roberts-Joseph was one of the leading voices in the fight to recognize Juneteenth, the unofficial holiday commemorating the abolishment of slavery in America, as a national holiday. She also helped organize the city’s annual celebration of the holiday, which was held at the museum she started 18 years ago.
“A cultural legend”
News of Roberts-Joseph’s death left the city in mourning.
Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome called Roberts-Joseph “a dear friend and a mother of the community” in lengthy Instagram post. Broome also said that the local Crime Stoppers unit will offer a $5,000 reward for anyone who calls with information that will lead to an arrest.
“From reviving Juneteenth, to the culture preserved at her Museum, she was a trendsetter and icon in this city,” the NAACP Baton Rogue branch wrote in a statement on Saturday. “She was a cultural legend.”
Louisiana state representative C. Denise Marcelle, a longtime friend of Roberts-Joseph, said that news of the activist’s death left her heart empty.
“This woman was amazing and loved her history,” Marcelle wrote on Facebook. “She never bothered anyone, just wanted to expand her African American Museum downtown, where she continually hosted the Juneteenth Celebration yearly.”
Even the local police took to Facebook to share their condolences.
Update 7/15 3:48 p.m.: The Baton Rouge Police Department confirmed to VICE News that Roberts-Joseph was found dead in her own vehicle. The text has been updated.
Cover image: Flowers outside the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American History Museum, whose founder Sadie Roberts-Joseph, 75, was discovered dead in the trunk of a car Friday are seen on Sunday July 14, 2019 in Baton Rouge, LA. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)